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Man fishing in a boat

Hands Dirty, Feet Wet

Understanding the Ocean through The Vapnek Fisheries Management Fellowship

Vast ecosystems belie the tranquil waters of the Pacific Ocean. We live alongside the sea at UC Santa Barbara, but few understand the multitude of life beneath the waves. As a fisheries scientist, Dan Ovando ’18 models how many fish are in the sea, how many there should be  and what we can eat.

Dan moved to Santa Barbara from Miami to obtain his master’s at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. His master’s project with hopeful abalone fisherman in the Channel Islands piqued questions about the human dimension of fishing. 

“Fisheries management is about how we protect pristine wild places and balance that with the need to feed people,” said Dan. 

While working at Amgen in the eighties, Dr. Daniel Vapnek noticed bright young UC Santa Barbara alumni contributing to the biopharmaceutical company. A move to Santa Barbara brought him closer to this scientific community, where he learned about ocean ecology through his love of fishing. He knew that well-trained scientists were crucial for the future of America, especially as climate change accelerates. 

“The ocean is a complicated ecology,” said Dr. Vapnek. “Coral reefs, for example, are important breeding grounds for many marine organisms. As the water warms, many of the fish stocks will migrate north. It’s important that scientists are trained to monitor these changes and make fisheries sustainable, since fish are an important protein source for so much of the planet.”

In 2013, Dr. Vapnek established the Daniel and Dianne Vapnek Fisheries Management Fellowship to support graduate students in their quest to solve this problem. Reflecting on his own experience pursuing a doctorate in microbiology, Dr. Vapnek acknowledged that he continued his education thanks to increasingly rare government support, a gap he hopes to fill through his fellowship. Bren students know him as a mentor. 

“Dr. Vapnek shows up to almost all campus events with great questions. He pushes us to communicate our research to others who may not have our background. He's always been a presence around Bren,” said Dan.

Through the Vapnek Fisheries Management Fellowship, Dr. Vapnek strengthens the ecology of the Bren School. Dan pays forward the support he’s received by helping classmates understand this quantitative field through monthly workshops and blog posts.

When Dan defended his dissertation in the summer of 2018, Dr. Vapnek was in the audience. Now, Dan works at the University of Washington, partnering with the United Nations to redesign global fisheries monitoring programs to better understand “blue economies” in parts of the world without the statistical tools of the United States. He’ll research the health of fisheries in South America and Southeast Asia, and what that means for the future of their citizens and seas. 

“Supporting Bren students gives us the critical opportunity to have summers to do fieldwork, engage with new stakeholders and get a feel for the on-the-ground process that goes with applied research,” said Dan. “Hands dirty, feet wet: that’s hard to do if you’re slogging away on campus. These opportunities make it easy for students to get the practical real world experience to come out ready to make a difference.”