Enrique Sala: We need a wild world with wolves and sharks | Science and Technology

Marine ecologist Enrique Sala.National Geographic

As a child on the Mediterranean coast of Girona, Enrique Sala, 54, wanted to be a diver on the Calypso, the research vessel of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Part of his dream came true, as he became a marine biologist and was able to dive underwater to conduct research. But after years of studying in Spain and the United States, one fine day he realized that “what I was doing was writing a marine life obituary.” He needed to stop watching it get destroyed and take action to try and prevent the destruction. It was then that he realized that there were still untouched places on the planet that not even Cousteau could see, and he began organizing excursions to these unique places with National Geographic. According to him, these trips are meant to make sure the sites are protected and show how different life on Earth can be when humans aren’t around. His book The Nature of Nature (published by Ariel) was recently published in Spanish. It is an “accelerated biology course” in which he explains why it is necessary to return to a wild world and repopulate the Earth with predators such as wolves or sharks.

A question. Why are predators so important in an ecosystem?

Answer. Because they are the givers of life. We have a misconception about predators, we think that they eat everything and that if we eliminate them the rest will recover, when the opposite is true. They are predators that provide stability to ecosystems. There is an example of wolves in Yellowstone. The park was running out of trees, there was vegetation on the banks, the rapids were crumbling, there were no trout, no otters, no amphibians … But when the wolves were reintroduced, they began to regulate the deer population, causing cover Vegetarian to recover, stabilize river slopes, create habitats for fish, amphibians, birds … It is the predator that ensures the functioning of the entire ecosystem.

s. For an ecosystem to function, does fear have to be a factor?

a. Yes, the ecosystem is a spectacle of fear. We have also seen that it has been proven in some reefs in the Pacific Ocean where there are only many sharks caught. You don’t see a lot of fish there because it is hidden. This phenomenon is separate from the fear we might feel from predators. But it is this spectacle created by the sharks, where species are waiting in hiding to feed, that ensures that biodiversity thrives.

s. Predators such as the wolf control the abundance of other species, but they do not get rid of it completely. why is that?

a. Because there are places where prey is safe from predators. Moreover, in a natural ecosystem, everything is limited by the number of plants present; That determines the number of both herbivores and carnivores. There are times when the predator reduces the number of prey, but this also reduces the predator population, which means that the number of prey increases again and the cycle resumes. It is a dynamic cycle that maintains the number of predators and prey and allows both to coexist.

s. Why doesn’t this apply to humans, who are pushing other species to extinction?

a. The problem with humans is that other species are inevitable, and no one escapes us. Moreover, we are not restricted by the number of plants there are or by the amount of solar energy that reaches the earth each day. To over-exploit the present moment, we use necrosis, the energy that plants have stored in the past.

s. You say in the book that this is the explanation that prominent ecologist Ramon Margalev gave you when you asked him the same question during college. Is this true?

a. I was fortunate enough to study biology at the University of Barcelona when Professor Margalev was still going to his office and teaching some sort of class about plankton in marine biology, even though he was already retired. When there was a question that no one had an answer to, Professor Margalev always came up with something.

s. What do you think about the way some people in Spain still reject the wolf?

a. There are two types of people who reject the wolf: those who do not know the wolf and those who, as part of the collective unconscious, continue to fear that these predators are eating people when in fact they do not attack humans. And people who live in the countryside, ranchers, to harm the livestock. But this is something that can technically be fixed by compensating for the loss of livestock.

s. Since you were a child, on the beaches of Catalonia, your whole life has been inextricably linked with the sea. How do you feel when you dive under water?

a. The earthly world, with all its cares and burdens, completely disappears to me. It is as if I have moved to another dimension. Water helps to forget about gravity and has an absolute healing effect. Jacques Cousteau said that when he started diving he felt like an angel.

s. How does fishing change this underwater world?

a. We empty the sea. In the Mediterranean, three-quarters of the fish are overfished, and we are taking them out faster than they can reproduce.

s. At what point did you realize that your investigations were limiting you to “writing a marine life obituary”?

a. At the University of California, they pressured us to publish many scientific articles. One day, while working on an article about how fishing shortens food chains in the Sea of ​​Cortez, I started thinking about the studies I had published that year and realized I didn’t want to spend my life writing a paper on how we are destroying marine life. I thought I was just describing the problem, not helping to solve it. I felt a little irresponsible. and ran away.

s. How does organizing expeditions to untouched areas of the planet help solve the problem?

a. Although they tell you in college that the most important thing to make rational decisions is data, in fact, for political leaders or societies to make the decision to protect unique areas, they must first fall in love with those places. And if we can’t get them to those places, we have to get to them, through documentaries.

s. What is ‘mutated baseline syndrome’?

a. It’s the thinking that what’s natural for a place, and its baseline, is what we saw the first time we got to the site. For me, what is normal in the Mediterranean is what I saw as a child: crystal clear water, with sea urchins, little algae and no big fish. But this gives us the wrong idea, because if we go back in time, we find that life was much more abundant than that. It’s like amnesia.

s. Are we turning the planet into a huge farm?

a. Exactly, 96% of the planet’s mammal biomass is us and our livestock. Only 4% of land mammals.

s. Why do we have to go back to a brutal world?

a. Because it is wildlife that provides us with the oxygen we breathe, the clean water we drink, it protects cities from floods… We need a wild world, with wolves and sharks, because we need large predators for everything to happen.

s. How can you take back this brutal world?

a. This is achieved by protecting areas so that no hunting or logging is allowed in at least 30% of the planet by 2030. This is achieved by restoring and rebuilding areas that have been degraded. Spain has many lands that were once agricultural that have been abandoned and it is an opportunity to restore ecosystems with their predators. You can also get this by eating less meat and more plants, because currently half of the world’s agriculture is dedicated to feeding livestock. If we consumed less meat, we could free up the land, take it back, and rebuild it.

s. What happens in an ecosystem when fishing is prohibited?

a. In Spain, less than 1% of the sea is completely protected from fishing, but we know that protected areas in marine reserves, such as the Medes Islands or Cabo de Palos, are not only exceptional, but also help in the resettlement of the surrounding areas. . The fishermen are fishing more around those reserves, we should create hundreds of them.

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