Na­tional Geo­graphic Pris­tine Seas Project

Proyecto Na­tional Geo­graphic Pris­tine Seas

Patagon Journal - - CONTENTS - By Jimmy Lang­man Pho­to­graphs by En­ric Sala

He got a doc­tor­ate in ecol­ogy from Aix-Mar­seille Univer­sity in France, com­par­ing marine life in­side and out­side a small no- take marine re­serve on the Costa Brava. Na­tional Geo­graphic ex­plorer-in-res­i­dence En­ric Sala, 48, orig­i­nally from Girona, Spain, then went to work for the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy in Cal­i­for­nia. There, he helped de­sign a net­work of marine re­serves for Baja, Mex­ico, and did re­search dives in places like Cuba, Belize and Brazil to study fish­ing, pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change im­pacts in the ocean. But he in­creas­ingly be­gan to feel that the science he was do­ing was all for naught. “One day I re­al­ized I was just writ­ing the obit­u­ary of ocean life. I felt like the doc­tor who tells the pa­tient how she is go­ing to die - with ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­tail - but with­out of­fer­ing a cure.”

It was a 2005 ex­pe­di­tion to Palmyra Atoll and the re­mote King­man Reef some 1,000 miles south of Hawaii that would

change the course of Sala’s ca­reer path, as well as the way sci­en­tists un­der­stand how coral reefs work. They found that, un­like at reefs with lots of hu­man im­pacts, where the fish out­num­ber the preda­tors, the in­verse is true on a pris­tine reef - the King­man reef was dom­i­nated by sharks in­stead of fish. Ul­ti­mately, Sala also came to re­al­ize that our un­der­stand­ing of marine ecosys­tems would al­ways be lim­ited if we don’t study sim­i­lar un­ex­ploited ocean habi­tats in their most nat­u­ral state. He de­cided that he wanted to seek out the most re­mote parts of the ocean to ex­plore and docu- ment them. He quit Scripps, and in 2008 con­vinced Na­tional Geo­graphic to launch the Pris­tine Seas project, an ef­fort to find, sur­vey and help pro­tect the ocean’s last wild places.

Since then, Pris­tine Seas has or­ga­nized 23 ex­pe­di­tions around the world, each last­ing from two to six weeks and in­volv­ing a team of 10 to 40 sci­en­tists and film­mak­ers. Their ef­forts to call at­ten­tion to the need to pro­tect th­ese ar­eas has helped per­suade coun­tries like the United States, Great Bri­tain, Costa Rica, Gabon, Chile, Ecuador, France, Palau and Kiri­bati to pro­tect 13 of the Pris­tine Seas sites — some 4.4 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters of ocean.

Sala told Patagon Jour­nal that their big­gest chal­lenge to pro­tect­ing th­ese ar­eas has usu­ally been a strong in­dus­trial fish­ing lobby. But armed with stud­ies, they show them that pro­tected ar­eas not only help na­ture, but the fish­eries around them. “We con­duct eco­nomic anal­y­sis to show the dam­age that in­dus­trial fish­ing has on the ecosys­tem, the op­por­tu­nity costs of over­fish­ing, and the ben­e­fits of con­ser­va­tion.” But he says ul­ti­mately it comes down to po­lit­i­cal will. “It takes elected of­fi­cials to show lead­er­ship and in­tegrity to cre­ate large marine re­serves. Chile is a great ex­am­ple of that, where For­eign Min­is­ter Muñoz and Pres­i­dent Bachelet have turned Chile into a global leader in ocean con­ser­va­tion.”

Marine pro­tected area are a vi­tal part of the so­lu­tion to pro­tect oceans and marine life, but Sala says far more marine re­serves are needed that pro­hibit fish­ing to “bring back marine life, bring in new tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties, and help to re­plen­ish the fish pop­u­la­tions around them.”

To­day, just 3 per­cent of the ocean is part of some type of marine pro­tected area. Sci­en­tists now call for 30 per­cent of oceans to be pro­tected. But Sala says “half of the ocean needs to be pro­tected from hu­mans, so it can con­tinue to pro­vide for us. And the other half should be man­aged well, with smart fish­eries and sus­tain­able aqua­cul­ture. Oth­er­wise we’re go­ing to de­plete the prin­ci­pal of the ocean’s ac­count, and there will be lit­tle left for us to en­joy.”

Na­tional Geo­graphic Pris­tine Seas has worked around the world, from the Arc­tic to trop­i­cal reefs, in­clud­ing four wild places in Chile. In 2018, they have plans in the works to ex­plore the south­ern tip of Ar­gentina, and Malpelo - an oceanic is­land off the Pa­cific coast of Colom­bia. Asked what pris­tine site has left the big­gest im­pres­sion on him, Sala says they’re all beau­ti­ful but a re­cent ex­pe­di­tion to Cape Horn and Diego Ramirez in Chile was par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. “It’s the sea of the end of the world, where a thou­sand boats and 15.000 lives have been lost,” he said. “Yet, it har­bors one of the rich­est and more ma­jes­tic ocean ecosys­tems on the planet, from mag­i­cal un­der­wa­ter forests to thou­sands of al­ba­trosses that end­lessly roam the sky.”

En­ric Sala re­tains cau­tious op­ti­mism that mankind will do what is needed - and in time - to pro­tect the oceans. “It’s dif­fi­cult not to be pes­simistic when one sees how we’re trash­ing na­ture at a global scale. But I be­lieve in pos­si­bil­i­ties, and work hard to help pro­tect as much of the ocean as pos­si­ble. When I dive in places that have been pro­tected and see how fast marine life can re­cover, that gives me hope.”

Herein, Sala’s in­cred­i­ble photography from some of the Pris­tine Seas projects around the world.


Above / Ar­riba: Na­tional Geo­graphic Ex­plorer-in-Res­i­dence and Pris­tine Seas founder En­ric Sala dives in Palau›s fa­mous Jel­ly­fish Lake. El ex­plo­rador en res­i­den­cia de Na­tional Geo­graphic y fun­dador de Pris­tine Seas, En­ric Sala, bucea en el famoso Lago...

Left / Izquierda: Whitetip reef sharks and big­eye trevally are sil­hou­et­ted against the sun­light at Roca Par­tida, the small­est and most re­mote of the four Revil­lagigedo is­lands. Tiburones de ar­recife de punta blanca y ju­re­les vo­raz de­jan ver sus...

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