Lessons in Leadership: Integrating Courage, Vision, and Innovation for the Future of Sustainable Fisheries
Two Decades of “Science without Borders” to Rescue Coral Reefs
Since my childhood, I have marveled at the awe and beauty of colorful coral reefs that teem with life under the blue sea waves. As I grew up, I became as fascinated with their biology as I was with their seemingly infinite array of shapes and colors. Indeed, their symbiotic community teeming with algae, along with their extraordinary ability to secrete calcium carbonate that forms perfectly designed skeletons, placed them amongst the greatest natural wonders of the world’s oceans. In addition to their beauty, coral reefs form sanctuaries of rich biodiversity where hundreds of thousands of marine species coexist harmoniously. Unfortunately, the existence of the world’s corals is threatened by ever-increasing anthropogenic activities and climatic changes (Bruckner 2009). When I graduated from veterinary school, I decided without hesitation to devote my career to the field of comparative immunology, an emerging field at the time focused on how host defense mechanisms against microbes and cancer have evolved in animals and humans over millions of years. Indeed, corals and other aquatic animals constitute important landmarks in the evolution of immune systems.
Through my continued studies, I gained a first-hand appreciation for the tremendous stress on animal immunity resulting from the continuous influx of toxic compounds into their environment, aquatic and terrestrial alike (Cooper and Faisal 1990). Unfortunately, coral reefs were not an exception to such threats; indeed, every coral reef I visited in every corner of the globe showed signs of damage from environmentally induced and infectious diseases. However, grant funding agencies considered coral reefs to be low priority and my pleas and proposals were in vain. On the contrary, I was encouraged to continue my comparative immunology research on other edible aquatic animals. However, I vowed that later in my career, when an opportunity arose, I would devote my efforts to find ways to conserve coral reefs for generations to come. But a quarter century went by and a coral opportunity never presented itself.
Then, in 2000, I received a call from His Royal Highness Prince Khaled bin Sultan Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, followed shortly thereafter by a meeting in London. During his time as an avid scuba diver, Prince Khaled saw firsthand the demise of coral reefs in sites that he had seen flourishing just one year prior. As a result, he wanted to establish an organization devoted to the conservation and restoration of the world’s precious living oceans and thus committed financial, logistical, and administrative support for coral reef research for two decades until this organization could support itself. To my delight, Prince Khaled requested that I formulate a long-term vision for developing such an organization and be its founding executive director.