The sea is the future

Chilean-German biologist Verena Häussermann and scientist Josep-Maria Gili discuss the importance of protecting the seabed

The third debate in the series Women Scientists for the Environment , organised by Casa Amèrica Catalunya in collaboration with DIPLOCAT, dealt with the importance of the sea for the ecosystem. The cycle includes a series of debates with a female perspective on the major issues that in the future will be the focus of scientific research for the preservation of the planet and our lives, during which leading scientists in Latin America discuss issues with Catalan researchers such as the pandemic, climate, water, biodiversity or mountain.

In this third session, the Chilean-German biologist Verena Häussermann, associate researcher at the Catholic University of Valparaíso, and Josep-Maria Gili, research professor at the Consell Superior d'Investigacions Científiques (CSIC) at the Institut de Ciències del Mar in Barcelona, have debated the seabed. Gili began the conversation by asking about Haüssermann's particular relationship with Chilean Patagonia. The scientist commented on the surprise of observing the biodiversity of the waters of the Chilean fjords and the discovery of large colonies of corals in such cold waters, a discovery that has only just begun because the size and variety of the terrain are still home to many new surprises. In this regard, Gili has remarked that cold water corals are one of the most important targets of current biological research.

In this sense, Häussermann pointed out that in the last ten years the impact of agriculture, human activity and climate change on coral colonies has been very noticeable and that in areas that were previously full of them, most of the specimens have disappeared. Another of the negative effects is due to activities of nature itself, such as volcanic activity, because many plants do not tolerate the lack of oxygen and their disappearance alters the entire life chain. At this point, Gili wondered if the excuse of climate change is not used too much to justify these changes and at the same time underestimates the harmful effect of human activity, pointing to excessive industrial fishing and the use of nutrients to increase production. According to Häussermann, change is a product of multiple factors and climate change exacerbates it.

Both have agreed in emphasising the importance of conserving marine biodiversity because it ensures the survival of the ecosystem. Häussermann spoke of "bioengineered animals", which provide shelter for other species, and therefore ensure their survival. Thus, with the destruction of some species, others take their place and no longer allow their reproduction. This is why "the more complete the ecosystem, the more stable and resilient it remains," he said.

At this point, both scientists have pointed out the importance of the so-called "marine protected areas or marine reserves", which establish different levels of protection and permitted activities, but the name is not enough, there must also be clear vigilance of these.

"The protection of the seabed is a global commitment of society, but scientists should also be committed to society and alert it," said Gili. For his part, Häussermann insisted that we are facing "an environmental emergency, as we lose a species every seven minutes" and therefore "we must work together to preserve the sea, because it occupies 71% of the planet's surface". "The sea is the future," he said.

To conclude the debate, both speakers stressed the importance of research and highlighted the inconsistency of devoting so much scientific and economic effort to seeking life on other planets, instead of devoting them to knowing more "completely" life on our planet.

The day concluded with the screening of the short film Regalos de plata, directed by Eddie Frost, on the search for the seabed in Chilean Patagonia. The documentary follows Verena Häussermann as she explores rich ecosystems and highlights key challenges for wildlife there. The film calls for a better understanding of the area and for the protected marine areas to be established urgently. Otherwise, these "silver gifts" will be lost forever.

Upcoming talks

The Women Scientists for the Environment cycle focuses on female scientists who have shone for their perseverance and success in defending some area of research into nature. They are women who have become a leading name in their field, who have created a school of thought or made some decisive scientific discovery, who have penned outstanding scientific publications and received international awards.

The next sessions of the cycle will include:  Claudia Suseth-Romero, Guatemalan inventor of a natural method of water decontamination; Tatiana Espinosa, winner of the Jane Goodall Hope and Inspiration Ranger Award for her work in the Amazon; Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Colombia for eight years; and Yolanda Kakabadse, promoter of the Declaration for Environmental Sustainability in Latin America. They will be accompanied by the Catalan scientific disseminators Ramon Folch, Àlex Richter-Boix, David Bueno and Vladimir de Semir.