In the fourth instalment in our series of Q&As with Blue Ventures staff, we ask Alasdair Harris, our Founder and Research Director, some searching questions about science, conservation and superpowers…
What is your scientific background?
As an undergraduate I studied zoology, and spent my honours year poring over the fossil collections of the national museum of Scotland working to describe a new species of horseshoe crab, an amazing animal that once swam around what is now southern Scotland. (Hundreds of millions of years ago in the lower Carboniferous Scotland was a balmy tropical sea!) I then spent a year studying environmental management, before moving on to start my doctoral research in tropical marine biology, focusing on hard coral community ecology – marvellous stuff!
Why do you do what you do?
I guess I’ve always been an eager environmentalist, but I made the decision to focus my career specifically on marine conservation because of enormity of the issues facing our seas. There’s an overwhelming need for urgent action to address the immense challenges that our oceans are now facing. It’s this sense of urgency – which can be both compelling and often also frightening – that has always been my overriding motivation.
What is the best/worst thing about being a conservation scientist?
The best part is quite simply the dazzling sense of wonder that hits me each time I set foot on or under the water – whether it’s snorkelling in a kelp forest off the cold Scottish Atlantic coast, diving on a tropical reef, or even flying across the empty vastness of an ocean – the enormity, diversity and complexity of our seas can be intoxicating. And it’s not all about coral reefs. Just this week I was walking through a muddy mangrove swamp at low tide – a harsh hot environment with clouds of mosquitos and overly attentive bees – but even there the diversity of life living in the muddy sediment at my feet was simply mind boggling. Curious species of burrowing crabs I’d never seen before, rainbows of algae, seagrasses harbouring schools of juvenile fish schooling in the hot pools around my ankles, and of course the immense tangled mangrove trees themselves – it was magnificent.
The worst thing about being a conservation scientist is the knowledge that we’re still not doing enough to reverse the trend of decline that we’re seeing in our seas, our fisheries and our marine environment in general. The writing is on the wall, yet as a society we keep our heads in the sand and fail to recognise the true value of our oceans – our self-interest continues to trump the long-term interests of society and our environment. We desperately need to change the way we value our seas, to create new incentives to encourage people to follow the science, and take decisive action for a more sustainable future. We’re fighting against the clock to get this right.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The knowledge that every so often our efforts pay off, and we’re able to make a difference that counts – be it through the creation of a new marine park, by influencing fisheries legislation, enabling some of the world’s poorest fishing families to send their children to school – often for the first time – or simply by changing the way people view the ocean.
What is your favorite species or group of species and why?
Easy – scleractinia! The hard corals are the building blocks of tropical reefs, the foundations upon which the planet’s most magnificent ecosystem is based. They are mesmerisingly beautiful and bewilderingly diverse. They’re so enormously productive that they can build entire geological structures – they shape coastlines and continents and can even be seen from space. Yet they’re also incredibly vulnerable – sensitive to the tiniest changes in their environment or ecosystem, and dependent for much of their energy on a complex relationship with algae that live within their tissues. In many ways they’re the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to climate change and the unprecedented global changes we’re unleashing on our atmosphere and oceans.
What would your science superpower be?
My dream would be to work out how to enable our species to photosynthesise. If we humans could feed ourselves from the sun we could finally put a halt to our rapacious consumption of life in our seas. And if that’s too farfetched my superpower would be to be able to digest cellulose – so we can live like dugongs!
What is one of the strangest things that has happened to you while working on conservation?
In April 2006 I was diving on a remote reef in the central Indian Ocean when I suddenly noticed that the cathedral of coral in front of me seemed to be smouldering as if it was on fire. The smoke was rising from individual colonies of fungiid mushroom corals – a small free living species that we found all over this particular reef. What I was observing was a coordinated spawning event – the first time that a synchronous daytime spawning had been observed in this species.
Al was recently nominated for the Tusk Conservation Award which celebrates an exceptional contribution to conservation over a lifetime. He is one of five finalists selected for demonstrating extraordinary commitment and having made a significant impact in their field of work. The winner will be announced in September.