In the shark world, there is one name you are bound to know: Chris Fischer. He's been making ways in the ocean industry for years now, as OCEARCH Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader. TFUI Founder Melissa got to call him in-between expeditions to get to know the Chris Fischer many people don't know. Love him or hate him, Chris bares his every thought... and we admire him for it.
The Fins United Initiative: Thank you so much for letting us interview you Chris. I guess what we all want to know is how did you get to where you are today?
Chris Fischer: I grew up in Kentucky and there's a lot of farms and countryside there. I fell in love with the water and later in life that transitioned down to Florida where my parents took us down for vacation - I love to recreationally fish. I was a kid on the water every day, whether I was out boating or hanging out on the beach or trying to catch fish. I spent some time on the water thinking about what I wanted to do and realized that people were disconnected from the ocean.
TFUI: Why do you think that is?
CF: We had Jacques Cousteau when I was a kid and he was pouring the ocean into everyone's lives at a pretty radical scale. And then he was gone and there was this gap and there was really no one connecting large groups of people to what was going on in the oceans so there was awareness so they could choose what to do about [the problems facing the oceans.] If you're not aware of something you can't choose to change your life or make a decision to help something. So I was young enough and dumb enough-
CF: and 29 and I set this noble goal to try to pour the world's oceans into people's lives in a scale unseen since Cousteau. That was about 1998 or 1999.
TFUI: And how did you set about that?
CF: Because I loved to fish, the most organic thing for me to do was to start a fishing show. So I started a fishing show that was on ESPN Outdoors on the weekend mornings with my whole family. And we would go out, we would fish and free dive together, and we'd catch one fish and eat it together and let the rest go. The whole [premise] of the show was to get out and discover the world offshore and be a responsible steward of the sea. I was making those shows and joined the board of The Billfish Foundation (TBF) and started to learn how ocean management worked - you can't change the future of the ocean on a fishermen's story, you need a peer-reviewed published paper.
CF: But when I would go to board meetings and hear scientists' had to say about various species, it didn't really sync up with what we were seeing on the water. I came to realize that the scientists didn't have enough resources - they didn't have enough money, and they didn't have boats and oftentimes the people who studied these animals didn't know how to catch them. There was a real disconnect between the practical and the academic space. We didn't have our best fishermen catching species for our best scientists to create the best data to manage towards abundance.
TFUI: And how did this relate to your show?
CF: So while we were making that show, since it had the boats paid for, I started taking out the scientists who studied whatever we were catching while we were shooting those shows. I really got into this concept of building businesses to make business and do good at the same time. Like, why can't we build businesses that enable scientists so we can collect data and manage towards abundance?
CF: Well it started to feel selfish. Like, 'Oh god, here we are on another white shiny boat having another amazing experience.' The ocean is providing all of these amazing gifts, beautiful dives, catching and releasing beautiful fish, beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I personally look at the ocean as an individual. And I realized I am taking, taking, taking while telling people to be a steward of the sea, but what am I really giving to her? I felt like my relationship was out of balance with her, and no relationship is successful without balance. I felt like I needed to spend the rest of my life trying to become a servant to the ocean if I was going to create balance in my relationship with her - that was about 2007. And while I was going through this evolution of thought, all the scientists kept talking about this major shark problem.
TFUI: Major shark problem?
CF: That was the time the study came out that said we were down to [small percentage] of our large sharks. [Note, this is the study he is referring to.] And the fishermen were telling me different recreational fisheries wouldn't flourish because they need the sharks to be there and keep everything in balance. I was like, "Oh wow!" I don't think I totally understood that at the time, but I was getting more active on understanding the science and policy side. And I said to the scientists, "Well, lets just manage the sharks back. Where do they mate? Where do they give birth? Where are the baby sharks?" They said to me, "We don't know. We've never been able to leverage the latest technology and we haven't nailed down the life history puzzle of these large sharks." In particular great white sharks and tiger sharks. I asked them, "Are you telling me lack a fundamental data set - a cornerstone of data- to manage the whole system to balance and abundance?"
TFUI: And what did they say?
CF: And they said, "Yes." I was like, "Holy shit! Well we better do that - if not us, then who?" And so that is when I leveraged everything I had to buy the boat we have now in an effort to build an enterprise to create safe access to these large sharks for the global science community and become a servant of the ocean... a servant of the science community... a servant of the future. Since that time we've had to prove the model and get the funding - I thought I was going to lose the house and ship four times! Everything!
TFUI: So it was never about the sharks for you. Did you ever have a fascination with sharks?
CF: I'm not a shark guy. I've never had a fascination with sharks. I'm an ocean guy. A water person - and there was this radical problem that was preventing us from making sure we would be proud of the planet we leave our kids... and that was data deficit. And so I began to try to attack data deficit - and that's why we're here. I'm about data creation.
TFUI: So it wouldn't have been sharks if the data deficit wasn't there. Like, it would've been squid if that's where the lack in data was?
CF: Absolutely. This was an organic process based on wanting to create balance in my life with the ocean and wanting to attack the problems towards managing towards abundance. At that time, the shark thing was of paramount importance. A plummeting population and the lack of data.
TFUI: What was the goal?
CF: We thought that Jacques Cousteau held 27 missions and if we could hold it together for that long maybe we could pour the ocean into people's lives on a scale unseen since his time. Since [the beginning] we've completed on 31 expeditions and we have exceeded the scale he was delivering the oceans. We have about a total potential reach across OCEARCH now of about 16 billion impressions a year, so our hard reach is about 1.6 billion impressions a year. And then creating that massive community because the sharks turned out to be so charismatic -- I had no idea what I was getting into! The plan was just to help. Now we can talk to our community about various other issues; you can leverage the sharks for ocean issues.
TFUI: You've led 31 expeditions- holy crap. If it's even possible, can you narrow it down to your favorite one?
CF: Oh there is so many for so many different reasons. So many different challenges. In the beginning we were overcoming so much! We were building big collaborative groups and invited everyone to come out- like on the North Atlantic white shark collaborative now there's about 30 scientists from 24 institutions on every shark. And so we can learn 30 times faster! But many senior people would try to prevent us from coming in - and preventing the other scientists from coming up.
CF: Our whole model was, "Oceans first, grandchildren first. We don't have time for individual agendas." So many people went into undermine mode and say whatever it is they had to say- which is probably a lot of what you have read.
CF: So some of those weren't the favorite expeditions but they were the most important because we were disrupting this individual institutional orientation and trying to get people on a common vision that was rooted on, "Hey man, we need to learn things we've never learned before at a rate we've never learned before so we can be proud of the planet we leave our kids and we need data to do that." There is just US. There is no 'you' or 'me.' And that was hard for people.
TFUI: I remember when OCEARCH really got big those first couple of years... and it seemed like the public, and the scientists, was really divided on how you carried out your research.
CF: It wasn't really the public. If you go back and dig into the voices of the reasonably small group of people, it was primarily people with another agenda. Either they wanted to hoard the resource [the area or sharks], monetize the sharks through cage diving or photography. If you really look at the breadth, regular people were confused by the conversation and the half-truths. Now when someone tries to say something, the general public just hammers them.
TFUI: So what has been the biggest collaboration to date so far?
CF: We've enabled over 200 scientists over the 31 expeditions. Every trip we have is a massive collaboration.
TFUI: Wow. That's big! You guys were one of the first, if not the first organization to come up with your shark app that shows where the sharks are at. How did you all come up that idea - like, why the app?
CF: Well we were leveraging TV to pay for the boat in the early years - we sold 30 hours of TV to National Geographic and 10 hours to the History Channel. And while we were doing the show we couldn't share with the public what we were doing in real time because it would scoop the show. And so when the show was cancelled, one of our core values is inclusion and we were constantly trying to find 'vehicles' to have more people feel included. How can we make it so you feel like you are in the middle of this project even though you can't be here?
TFUI: A good idea.
CF: And one of those 'vehicles' was to let people see the tracking at the same time as the scientists. Then everyone could be involved in real time and who knows what the additional brains looking at the tracking might uncover in those patterns. It's going to take us all, right?
TFUI: Right. And what has been the most rewarding part of this journey for you? I mean, you've given it your all.
CF: Making real progress. When you look at the radical amount of data we have that we didn't have before 2007. We haven't proven yet where the white sharks mate and give birth, but I would say we know. And now we're in the process of getting the sample size so when the scientists write it up they have good, sensible science. The data creation component has been one of the most rewarding things- that there is no unsolvable puzzle if you put the right people together and give them a common vision... and having a selfless disposition helps.
TFUI: Do you think your work - I mean, it's gone international - do you think it has garnered people to have a better relationship with the ocean?
CF: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the reasons why all of the sharks got social media handles. People are loving up on their white sharks - like, 'Don't leave South Carolina, we love you more than Florida.' The thought of that ten years ago was -
CF: Yeah. Now you have people that when they see a shark is beached they are trying to get it back into the water. They used to run down and cut out their jaws. So... we are going to win. There are so many great organizations out there that are driving down the demand for shark [products] and many other people that exploding the data sets around these sharks so we have the capacity to manage them.
TFUI: So what does the future hold for OCEARCH?
CF: We are going to move on to the next top 5 data deficiency problems that the ocean has that we can affect. OCEARCH is becoming "more ocean." OCEARCH is evolving a lot - we are starting to help a lot of people in other spaces. We're going to have oceanographers, marine debris scientists, shark scientists, fisheries people, turtle people, hopefully some marine mammal people-
TFUI: So a lot of different backgrounds.
CF: Yeah. Well, look, it doesn't cost us any more money to put more smart people on the ship when we exponentially increase our data creation. OCEARCH is now becoming a part of Jacksonville University so we now have an academic marine biology program and marine science research institute. We have the OCEARCH Ocean Policy Institute that is emerging out of Jacksonville University; we're working with their business school on social entrepreneurship about how to build businesses to move the planet towards abundance as well as a photography school.
TFUI: Wow. That's a lot!
CF: So what I'm trying to do now is give it away to the future and set it up so that it can transcend any individual's lifespan and make sure it can be a servant to the ocean. It shouldn't end with any individual's life.
TFUI: We 100% agree. And if you could tell people one thing about sharks, what would it be?
CF: No sharks, no fish sandwiches! Lots of sharks, lots of fish sandwiches.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK chris FOR His TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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