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Dr. Enric Sala of National Geographic Pristine Seas races the clock, trying to protect the ocean and the planet.
By Mark Jackley | October 2020
Enric Sala has been sounding the alarm about the health of the world’s oceans for years. Now, with the waters warmer and more over-fished than ever, he’s turning up the volume on his life’s mission, warning about the planet’s future, not just the vulnerability of life in the high seas.
Dr. Sala, a marine ecologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, is the founder of Pristine Seas, a project he launched in 2008 to explore and protect the ocean’s last wild places. Since 2009, the year Oracle started supporting Pristine Seas as a major donor, there has been real progress. But not nearly enough, he says.
“The science is telling us that we need 30% of the oceans protected by 2030 if we are to prevent a massive extinction of species and the collapse of our life support system,” says Dr. Sala, who notes that the oceans provide more than half the world’s oxygen and are the main source of animal protein for more than a billion people.
Dr. Sala fell in love with the sea growing up on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Before joining National Geographic, he developed his passion for marine conservation as he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Aix-Marseille, France, and later as a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. In his role as eco-evangelist, he gives TED talks, does interviews with major news media, and meets with government leaders across the globe.
When Pristine Seas began its mission to create marine reserves free of commercial fishing, only 1% of the oceans were protected. Today, it’s 7%, though only 2.5% is fully protected from damaging activities. The project has helped create 22 marine reserves that cover almost 6 million square kilometers.
“We have won significant battles, but we are losing the war,” Dr. Sala says. About 82% of fish stocks are removed from the water faster than they can reproduce at a replacement level. A warmer, more acidic ocean is killing corals and other species. Then there’s all that plastic garbage choking dolphins and other creatures.
“We have won significant battles, but we are losing the war.”
Some species are gone for good. For example, the monk seal that once roamed the Caribbean Sea. The world population of large fish—such as sharks, tuna, and cod—has fallen 90% in the last century. Ninety-nine percent of Mediterranean sharks have been lost to fishing.
While it’s late in the game, Dr. Sala thinks there’s still a fighting chance to bring endangered species back. He notes that marine life can return closer to a pristine state, faster than you might think. After the waters off Cabo Pulmo became a marine reserve, the fish biomass increased by 460% within 10 years. Cabo Pulmo, on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, has retooled its economy to support diving and tourism—evidence that life and livelihood aren’t mutually exclusive.Dr. Sala likes to quip that, “When you don’t kill the fish, they take a longer time to die. They reproduce for longer periods of time. They produce many more eggs, and they help to replenish the ocean around them.”
As he fights for the health of oceans in other parts of the world, Dr. Sala makes a detailed economic case. Using satellite technology, Pristine Seas has tracked thousands of commercial fishing boats from more than 20 countries to calculate the profitability of commercial fishing.
When government subsidies are factored in, to the tune of $35 billion a year globally, half of the high seas fishing industry appears to be unprofitable, though Dr. Sala concedes that politics and sheer resistance to change often win out. The cost of protecting a third of the planet—land and sea—would be $140 billion annually, which seems like a lot of money, but Dr. Sala notes that it’s less than the world spends on video games.
Dr. Sala has written a new book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, which extends his eco-evangelism to land environments, including human ecospheres such as New York City. “It’s all connected,” he says. “The principles that guide these ecosystems are the same on land as in the ocean. There are species that are keystone species, the glue that binds the ecosystems together, like the keystone on an arch. You remove the keystone and the whole arch collapses.”
We need 30% of the oceans protected by 2030 to prevent mass extinctions and the collapse of our life support system.
Just as the book was going to press, he asked the publisher, National Geographic Books, to delay it so he could add a chapter: The Nature of the Coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, Dr. Sala says, many people thought that climate change would happen sometime in the future, and to other people, not them. “When they heard about the loss of biodiversity, the loss of nature, they would say, ‘Well, this is something that affects people in the Amazon, in Brazil. Not me.’ And a disease that comes from animals is something like Ebola, something that happens in Cameroon and Congo. Not here.”
Besides providing funding to Pristine Seas, Oracle supports other important marine conservation groups. For instance, The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, which trains marine veterinarians and researchers who treat and study seals, sea lions, whales, and other creatures.
Oracle also helps fund the Marine Science Institute in San Mateo, California, which gives K-12 students hands-on education in marine ecology.
It’s all part of Oracle’s pledge to help protect the environment, a global effort that includes support for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation India among many organizations.
“We feel a responsibility to the planet and future generations,” says Colleen Cassity, executive director of the Oracle Education Foundation and Oracle Corporate Citizenship. “We want to do our part in ensuring that the planet not only survives, but thrives.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic spread across the planet.
Connecting the ecological dots, Dr. Sala points to the international wildlife trade and how not only COVID-19, but also SARS, Ebola, and HIV, have been linked by scientists to the illegal trafficking of wild animals and the destruction of natural habitats. Pangolin scales, for example, are used in traditional medicine. Because pangolins are susceptible to coronaviruses, scientists are studying their role in spreading COVID-19. Tamper with one part of nature in one part of the world, he notes, and the dire consequences are global.
“COVID-19 is the loudest wake-up call that we’ve had in recent history about how not only interconnected but also interdependent we are with all other creatures on our planet,” he says.
Again, Dr. Sala uses economics to fortify his case, noting that the International Monetary Fund estimates the economic impact of COVID-19 at $9 trillion over the next two years. In comparison, he says, the value of the illegal wildlife trade is $29 billion a year.
Dr. Sala observes that commercial fishing continues to deplete wild places—for instance, the waters around the Galapagos Islands—and that loggers are still setting fires to clear the Amazon jungles. On a positive note, the European Commission has proposed to protect 30% of Europe’s land and seas by 2030 and to go carbon-neutral by 2050.
In the foreword of The Nature of Nature, Prince Charles writes that humility is the key to turning the tide. People, he believes, must “restore a sense of the sacred” and stop viewing the Earth in purely utilitarian ways.
Dr. Sala puts it this way: viewing the planet as an economic asset “is like valuing a computer chip for the silicon or copper or whatever is in it”—ignoring the larger benefits it yields.
Dr. Sala relates his experience in taking heads of state into the wild marine places of their own countries, which many had never seen before. “They turn into little children and they fall in love with these places,” he says. “You can see in their eyes that sense of awe and wonder that little kids have when they are in nature.”
It’s important, Dr. Sala says, to get decision-makers to understand the stakes in emotional ways, “from a spiritual perspective, that these places are unique, irreplaceable, that they are treasures and need to be protected—and they can do something about it.” After bringing the president of Gabon on a marine expedition and letting him operate an underwater robot, the leader created “the best marine-protected area network in all of Africa,” he says.
Dr. Sala exhorts people to try to remember one overarching premise: “We cannot recreate what nature gives us for free. Life on earth is a miracle. It’s extraordinary.”
Photography: Enric Sala, National Geographic, Pristine Seas; Oracle