Interview: Dr. Arthur Kopelman

Arthur H. Kopelman serves as the president and one of the founders of The Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI). He also works as a State of New York distinguished service professor and full professor of science specializing in population ecology at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). At CRESLI, Kopelman’s main ongoing research project pertains to the identification of harbor seals at Cupsogue Beach. Working with CRESLI, he also leads whale watching trips out of Montauk. At FIT, he created an initiative for the college to incorporate sustainability in teaching as well as adding environmental initiatives to the college’s mission statement. 

Fire Island News (FIN): What drove you to found the Coastal Research Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) almost 20 years ago? 

Arthur H. Kopelman (AK): Those of us who founded it were previously working with Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation. We left that because we didn’t like the direction they were going and founded our own organization in 1996. 

FIN: Can you discuss how whales influence your overall passion for marine science? 

AK: I think they are what we commonly refer to as charismatic megafauna. It’s just there has always been a fascination I’ve have had for whales. To see them up close and in our waters is an incredible experience. When we take people out to see them, and they get to make that connection … I think the idea is that we as humans make a connection with these animals, recognize their presence and further understand the need to protect them and the environments in which they live. I think that is kind of the connection that is made … it is an amazing sight. I have been doing this for just over three decades and it’s always been a spectacular sight to see. 

FIN: I took a look at the CRESLI research abstracts. Which research have you completed that you believe to be most impactful? 

AK: That’s an interesting question because research never really seems to be completed. I think there are several. One in particular is actually in collaboration with others in the New York bight, and it is in the final stages of preparation. It pertains to looking at the distribution of whales throughout the New York bight. We developed a research goal in light of the problems that there are with ship strikes and the development of offshore energy. All of that needs to be informed by the work that we have done; looking at a distribution of whales so that we make sure that whenever things are placed, the impact is minimized. Another substantial research project pertains to this ongoing work that I do at Cupsogue Beach, where it is probably the longest continuous assessment of harbor seals in any one place on Long Island. The work shows clearly that seals are returning, in particular to the same place each year … and the fact that our population of seals are increasing. The last work is still in progress and not published yet, it is just a work on identifying finback whales off of the coast of Montauk. I’ve been able to identify 165 different individuals over the past nine years … and they are not easy to identify, so the work is in progress. 

FIN: I once attended an environmental lecture where the speaker called birds ‘the barometer of human health.’ Do you think this statement applies to your work with aquatic animals? 

AK: I’m not sure that it necessarily is … I think there are lots of different things at play. In a gross kind of sense, yes … recovery of an animal can be an indicator of the health of that system, or conversely when we see health problems arise within a system, we may see it’s effect in animals first. They are almost like sentinels that give us an idea of what may be right, and what may be wrong. But I think it is a giant step to categorically say that any particular environment is getting better solely because of an increase in the population of say dolphins, whales, seals or anything else. I think there needs to be background to support a claim like this one, it’s almost a leap of faith I’m not willing to take, particularly when we see what’s going on with some plastics, microfibers and microplastics and their ubiquity in our aquatic environment. This is stuff that wasn’t that well understood and represents a major potential problem, if not a real problem, particularly for large marine mammals. We are seeing, not here because the work isn’t being done, but in places like the Mediterranean where finback whales have poisons in their blubber particularly associated with the stuff that adheres to microplastics. So, there are relatively lots of new problems that create new areas for investigation. Things that may appear to be in great shape, when you dig down and look at the small scale, there is room to explore deeper environmental issues. 

FIN: I read some of your work on regional ocean planning. Could you explain what regional ocean planning is and how this influences sustainability? 

AK: I can sort of try to explain what it is. It just as the term states. It is a system in place that attempts to use whatever information is available to make planning decisions about the uses of areas in the ocean or regions of the ocean. I believe this is the simplest way that I can explain it. I believe that the idea behind regional ocean planning is to promote sustainability. Regional planning utilizes information to make decisions for planning that should be done in such a way that prioritizes sustainability. There are many branches of sustainability, in the ecological sense of sustainability as well as economic sustainability for those involved in the business associated with oceans and social sustainability in terms of the people there. I think whatever decision making plans come from, regional ocean planning must support sustainability so that we make sure resources aren’t being used in inappropriate ways that don’t reduce the potential for their use in the future. Regional ocean planning tries to promote that we have economic equability amongst all of the entities involved in ocean usage. Now is that possible through the work done by ocean planning? One would hope so, but I’m not sure to be honest with you. I would like to think that, but it is an ideal. Hopefully we can live up to that ideal. 

FIN: There have been multiple incidents on Fire Island in the past years of whales washing up on the shores. Is this unusual? What can be done better to protect these animals? 

AK: I would have to say it’s not unusual unfortunately, and the frequency of the event is increasing. It happens. Why do these whales wash up on the beach? They’re dead. Now what’s the cause of death? Typically, it is usually from ship strikes or entanglements. And of course, there are natural causes of death. Now what we have to do is develop mechanisms to significantly reduce the potential amount of ship strikes and reduce, at least for the slow moving whales like humpbacks and right whales, the potential for engagement. There is lots of work being done to try and come up with ways to reduce the frequency of beached whales, generally by reducing speed. The right whale in particular, if spotted in the water, the coast guard has to be notified and all vessels larger than 65 feet have to reduce speed 10 knots. That is part of the marine mammal protection act. What many of us are trying to do is have a similar speed reduction put into place when other whales are spotted, particularly humpback whales and finback whales. I think a mechanism has to be in place to get vessels to slow down. In terms of entanglement there is lots of work being done to develop pods to catch lobsters and other fish typically caught by nets that don’t rely on lines at all. 

FIN: The North Atlantic right whale is one of the seven species living off of New York’s coastlines, and it is critically endangered. What steps are you taking to advocate for the conservation of this species? 

AK: The steps are through education and by working with colleagues to discuss what can be done. The North Atlantic right whale is in pretty bad shape. This year, and even within the past few weeks, the death toll has been horrendous in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Last year, no calves were born. This year thus far, seven were born and in the past couple of weeks we have seen six to eight dead right whales. So, what has to happen obviously is that we need to take a step back and say: what’s going on in the Gulf? St. Lawrence is outside of the U.S. boundary, and they put restrictions in place in 2017, after 12 or 14 right whales died in one year. The restrictions worked last year, but this year something is off because whales are being hit by vessels and becoming entangled. What we do is reach out to our colleagues and educate the public. 

FIN: What work do you do that you feel is most impactful in analyzing the effects of anthropologic interference on marine ecosystems? 

AK: I think the answer again is education. A lot of folks just don’t understand the connections or understand what our collective footprint amounts to as a species, and more specifically what that does to our aquatic systems. Education is probably the most effective tool we have, as long as people are willing to listen. When we are out there on the beaches or looking at whales, we try and pick up whatever we can. Sometimes it may feel like a drop in a bucket, but it brings home the message that plastic is deadly. In fact, when I am leading a whale watching trip and I see a balloon, I’ll point it out to the public on board and say, ‘if you look out in that direction, you’ll see a deadly killer,’ and that draws everybody’s eyes over to the balloon. The other thing that needs to be talked about is climate change. I think it’s incredibly important to remind people that we must mitigate. 

FIN: I read a quote from a New York Times article from you that reads: ‘I’ve been able to radically change the institution. Sustainability is now part of the mission of the college.’ Can you describe what it was like to inspire positive environmental initiatives? 

AK: It was a long process. I started there in 1981, and it took nearly a quarter of a century to get the ball rolling in terms of a groundswell of faculty, students and staff. It is incredibly important for me to get this [sustainability] into the mission of the college. I am very proud of it. It involved initially a lot of work on my part, but also work with other people. This was a grassroots effort that serves as a good model to show the students what can happen when you make a dogged attempt to make change and teach them, this is what you have to do. 

FIN: FIT describes you as being “pivotal” in the establishment of the annual SUNY Sustainable Business and Design Conference. What strides does this conference take to promote environmental wellness? 

AK: Let me just say that it’s not just about environmental sustainability when we discuss sustainability. We also need to converse about social and economic sustainability. Within this conference, we strive to share information and some of my colleagues are participating in groundbreaking research in terms of materials. The students as well have gone on to produce outstandingly different ways to look at sustainability. Some of them have produced garments with zero waste … others have developed mechanisms to change entire companies. What drives the conference is the need for continuous education. The main course that I teach at FIT is called ecology and environmental problems. I’ve taught that since 1986, and my unofficial subtitle for the course is ‘no more business as usual.’ The message to every student … every high school student, every college student, is that we can’t continue to do things the way we have for so long. The status quo is no longer acceptable. The business as usual model, which has brought us to where we are, is not acceptable. The whole idea for me behind being an educator is to force folks to think about how they can change whatever they want to do, to make this place better.