Sustainability often gets a dirty (and incorrect) reputation for being soft and theoretical. Few disprove this theory like David Kaplan, who translated his advanced background in string theory and black holes into marine population modeling and research. After completing his PhD in physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Kaplan felt like he wanted a change. “I was doing theoretical physics, working on black holes, and it just lacked some value for humanity,” Kaplan said. Wanting to focus his impact, he pursued research in oceanography and marine ecology, which he discovered required quite a bit of physics. Before long, Kaplan had researched, studied, and worked on four continents (most notably in Chile, France, and California) on a range of projects.
Now an assistant professor at VIMS, Kaplan focuses on population dynamics and marine protected areas. Much like Kaplan’s career path, marine protected areas (MPA’s) have had a convoluted history.
The idea of protecting marine areas has been around in one form or another for centuries. In the 1920s and 1930s, the first MPAs were created primarily for scientific research, as opposed to marine conservation like most people (including myself) have assumed. Meanwhile, protected land reserves had been around since the late 1800s, over 30 years before the first MPA! Kaplan explains, “You advance 100 years into the future, you see that there is the same temporal gap in massive use of protected areas.” Terrestrial reserves really took off in the 1970s, while MPAs for conservation only gained traction starting in the 2000s.
So how did MPAs grow from tiny scientific reserves to a mass movement for conservation, with some protected areas as large as the state of California? Much of the impetus to create MPAs has unsurprisingly come from our increase in fishing frequency and technological development, not to mention increased global markets for transportation. “It’s being driven by problems of overexploitation that didn’t exist 50 or 100 years ago,” Kaplan said. “Suddenly, you have major potential for exterminating marine species. That was hard to do before that time period.” The technology used to organize and develop this foreign transportation actually became crucial to developing MPAs as well. “Down the road came the idea that these forms of spatial management or protection could protect against our failure to manage humans non-spatially,” Kaplan said. Rather than institute nitpicking limitations on net size or hook size, or limit each person’s catch individually, MPAs provided a broader, more attractive approach.
Despite their growing popularity (MPAs now cover between 2-3% of the world’s oceans), they still have some issues.
- Easy Does It – Predictably, as MPAs gained favor, governments all over the world jumped on board to protect the first and the most. The issue is that the easiest areas to protect, and the ones legislators protect first, are those that are not under heavy use. Protecting a large chunk in the middle of the ocean gives you some impressive square footage to put on paper, but it’s often not as beneficial as protecting a smaller, more contentious fishing zone.
- Border Patrol – MPAs are proven to increase abundance and diversity of marine species, but fishers still want to make a living. Kaplan remembers, “In Chile, I worked at very small reserves that had these huge mollusks. Fishers would line up along that border for these mollusks that would move, y’know, one foot a month, to crawl over the edge and get harvested.” This limits marine species within the confines of the MPAs, and as the species density grows, they’re forced outside.
- Blurred Lines – Most countries have discrete levels and categories of MPAs, but rarely have an obligation to adhere to them. These categories also differ from country to country and state to state. They all mean different things and have different goals regarding fishing, boating, pollution, which causes more confusion. With limited and sometimes no obligations, governments may create MPAs for status alone, essentially useless for conservation.
- One Size Doesn’t Fit All – Not all fish species are perfectly suited to MPAs. It is the largest fish that are being caught more often that need to be protected, like big bluefin tuna. However, these species are typically much more mobile than others, and so a single static MPA can be less effective. Some alternatives have been suggested, such as dynamic (moving) MPAs and enormous pelagic MPAs to cover their migration patterns.
In the end, the future of MPAs will be decided politically. Their popularity is exciting, and more and more of the ocean is protected each day. In the future, the heavily fished areas are less tractable and will have a longer political timescale attached. “We shouldn’t get a false sense of security based on that, the size or the percentage.” Kaplan said. “There’s quality and quantity involved there… It has gotten to a phase where every developed nation wants to announce they have the largest MPA.” Rigorous research and proper advocation are required to ensure the future of MPAs, and the future of marine diversity around the world.
Want to get involved?
If you are interested in David’s research and would like to get involved, he is currently looking for students to help with his ongoing and future research projects:
- Conservation modeling
- How reserves affect marine populations with different life histories
- Turtle tagging field work
- Larval dispersal related to population persistence
Want to know more?