Making Conservation Make Sense

If it weren't for hurricanes, Les Kaufman might be studying something completely different today.
By Karen Hopkin

Jason Varney |

Les Kaufman claims his interest in science might have begun in utero. "I remember at age 3, I got a book about the moon," he says. "At about 4, my father started bringing home herpetiles: frogs and turtles and things from vacant lots that actually used to exist in Brooklyn. At 5, I got my first microscope." But it was the move to Queens at age 8 that turned Kaufman, now a professor of biology at Boston University (BU), into a naturalist. It was 1960, and Kaufman says "southeast Queens was being reclaimed from the extensive marshes in Jamaica Bay. So my colleagues and I would wander off into the marshes and find things out there. Wonderful things. When we didn't find things, things would...

Kaufman has now slid down that slope and around the world to study the evolution and ecology of fishes, particularly those that inhabit coral reefs and the Great Lakes of East Africa. "He's a Renaissance man of tropical ecology and a real voice for marine conservation," says Kaufman's graduate mentor, Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. Collaborator Enric Sala, also at Scripps, agrees. "There are people who work on jellyfish and jellyfish are their life," he says. "But this man can talk about everything from the molecular reactions that corals have when they are stressed to Lake Victoria cichlids to social issues in coastal management in Brazil. Interacting with him is fun and very, very stimulating."

From Nuts and Berries to Jamaica

Kaufman's smorgasbord-approach to science began when he was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins' department of earth and planetary science, which, oddly, was "where the evolutionary biology was happening," he says. There Kaufman says he generally goofed off for about half his undergraduate career, spending days throwing lacrosse balls, raising orchids, and eating nuts and berries in the woods and spending nights stargazing in the university's observatory. Jackson, he says, promised him that if he straightened out his act "and got off the nuts and berries," he could go diving in Jamaica and do some real research. "That appealed," says Kaufman, who then signed up to do his graduate work with Jackson at Hopkins.

After Hurricane Carmen destroyed his first thesis project, an artificial reef he'd set up in Jamaica in 1974, Kaufman went in search of a new direction. That's when he spotted the three-spot damsel fish. "My buddy Ann Houston Williams and I were in the water just looking around, when I noticed that some of the common territorial fishes were chomping on the coral. And it appeared that they were actually stripping tissue off the coral to create space for a garden that they cultivate."

In clearing space for their underwater algae gardens, says Jackson, "these silly little fish about two inches long play a major ecological role on reefs in terms of determining which corals live and which die." Kaufman also visited a nearby Pleistocene reef and saw the same pattern of markings that on living reefs indicate that the coral has been chomped on and is trying to regenerate, suggesting that the same thing had been happening 125,000 years ago - "which was really cool," says Kaufman, "and creative as hell."

If Kaufman had published his work someplace more high-powered than the proceedings of the Third International Coral Reef Symposium, Jackson says, the work would have become an "absolute classic" that would have ended up in "all the anthologies." Kaufman says his studies instead came to the attention of the late Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) and his staff, and he became a semifinalist for a Golden Fleece Award, given out to call attention to government-funded projects that appear to be a waste of taxpayers' money. To Kaufman's disappointment, the prize went to a study on diving ducks - which, he notes, turned out to be the "forerunners of the current clinical practice dealing with cold-water near-drowning events."

Hurricane Allen Resets a Reef, and a Career

With his PhD in hand, Kaufman followed his fiancé to Boston and took a postdoctoral position at Harvard University. Then in the summer of 1980, Hurricane Allen struck Jamaica, an event that Kaufman describes as "tremendously reorganizing to all our thinking." The reef had been one of the most studied in the world, "and in 12 hours the whole system was reset." As a result, Kaufman says, "we began to realize that these natural systems could exist in multiple states. And when a natural disturbance resets the clock on any community, be it a coral reef or a forest, there is essentially a competition among alternative futures that emerges as the remaining organisms and the ones that come back into the system sort themselves out." Moreover, humans help to determine which future will emerge: whether, for example, the ocean floor will be covered by coral or by kelp. "That was a key insight in modern ecology," says Kaufman.

The goal of conservation, says Kaufman, is to "save all the pieces" so that none of the potential of a system is lost. To do that, ecologists need to set up a situation in which "people are most happy with the state of the system. That will serve the long-term interest of saving the pieces." Consider, for example, Belize. "What people want to see is that the coral reef returns to the vigor that it exhibited 20 or 30 years ago and that there are lots of fish and lobsters and conch to eat," he says. "The proposed solution to restoring that system, which is now in a state of disrepair, is to set up protected areas where human impacts are reduced, locally. Very straightforward, very logical. The problem is that management is only one kind of perturbation in the system. It's only one thing determining the health of the reef."

"Fisherman like Les," says Pat Fiorelli of the New England Fishery Management Council. "He's funny, he's smart, he's full of beans. Why wouldn't they like him."

As part of the Marine Management Area Science (MMAS) project with Conservation International, Kaufman proposes to determine the effectiveness of such management efforts in resetting the clock in a handful of carefully chosen marine ecosystems, including sites in Belize, Brazil, Fiji, Panama, and the Galapagos, and to look at ways to accelerate the progress.

"When Les invited me to participate in this project, I said, ?Oh no, not another research project purporting to reinvent marine reserve science,'" says Sala. "Then he told me what he was thinking about. Basically what he's doing with this project is making a qualitative leap in the science of marine-protected areas." In trying to "use science to diagnose and repair the damage done by human enterprise in the world's oceans," says Sala, "Les is talking the talk and walking the walk."

For Kaufman, using science to support conservation is the bottom line. "Normally in academia you're not supposed to place values on your findings or be concerned about outcomes," says Jamie Bechtel of Conservation International, Kaufman's former graduate student. "But Les is not an ivory tower academic. He's willing to take risks with his academic career to ensure that knowledge is translated into action, into making the world a better place. His respect for the planet and life on the planet is just awe-inspiring."

"He's doing in the oceans what needs to be done," says Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. "It's very important, very difficult work. But Les is a role model doing exactly the right kinds of things. I'm a great admirer."

Working with Locals Worldwide

Key to his success with these various programs is an ability to work with the locals, which is something Kaufman does exceedingly well. "Fishermen like Les," says Pat Fiorelli of the New England Fishery Management Council. "He's funny, he's smart, he's full of beans. Why wouldn't they like him? Les is always game for a new idea, and fishermen are born tinkerers. So in many ways they're cut from the same cloth."

In addition to his work in New England, California, and various tropical marine ecosystems, Kaufman has also logged time in Africa, where, among other things, he has studied the spectacular speciation and subsequent disappearance of Lake Victoria cichlids. With the help of a Pew fellowship in conservation and the environment, which he received in 1990, Kaufman set up a captive breeding program for Lake Victoria fishes, established a management project, and trained a battalion of African scientists to take up the charge. "Les is my authority on African lake cichlids," says Ehrlich. "Whenever I write anything on African cichlids I send it to him to check."

Kaufman credits Pew for offering him the opportunity to work in the area. "Without that award, I could never have done all this," he says. The funds, in part, allowed him to convert his apartment into an aquarium. "I set up 45 tanks and filled them with Lake Victoria cichlids," says Kaufman. "And I stared at them all night. That's how I learned to identify them by sight."

Cichlids aren't the only things Kaufman can identify. "Les is the most astonishing naturalist I've ever known," says Burr Heneman of the Commonweal Ocean Policy program in Bolinas, Calif. "There's not a critter he doesn't recognize and know on a first and last name basis." That goes for wildflowers and trees, as well.

When it comes to interacting with nature, Kaufman rarely takes a vacation. "At my wedding, he and another friend literally went fishing during the reception," says Bechtel. "Everyone was drinking and having a good time, and they got their poles and hung out at the pond. I loved it. It was classic Les!"

Working With, and Around, Leukemia

Being diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1997, at the age of 44, has put a damper on Kaufman's work in the field. "For most of my life I have lived for those moments each year when I escape from home and normal life and I go into the field," he says. "It's like being shot out of Jules Verne's moon cannon: One minute I'm here, the next minute I'm in 120 feet of water in Indonesia." But after his bone marrow transplant last summer, Kaufman has been unable to dive. "I can't go out on a boat. I can't even take planes, trains, or buses." He can, however, continue to advise, cajole, and brainstorm with his far-flung colleagues by phone, fax, and e-mail. "I'm basically the brain in the bottle," he laughs.

Cancer has not slowed that brain down. "He just doesn't stop to feel sorry for himself, he just charges ahead," says Jackson. "He fires off e-mails from the hospital when he's having his latest bone marrow transplant. It's unbelievable." Again, Sala agrees. "Les doesn't stop calling and sending e-mails. He's more active than me and I'm totally healthy. His energy is incredible. He's like a walking nuclear power station."

That energy and enthusiasm is an inspiration for his students, collaborators, and friends. "A colleague, who's quite unlike Les, once commented to me that a department can only have one Les Kaufman in it," says Boston colleague John Finnerty. "I could see his point: Les is a real force and he creates a big wake. But I immediately thought of the flipside: I feel badly for any department that doesn't have a Les Kaufman in it."

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