Chris Fischer heads up Ocearch, a research team aimed at “seeking to attain groundbreaking data on the biology and health of sharks, in conjunction with basic research on shark life history and migration.”. Fishcer and his team were caught in the crossfire of an aggravated public looking to find answers leading up to and following the attack of David Lilienfeld at Koel Baai. Zag scribe Anton Louw recently caught up with Fischer to hear more from his side of the story as well as get deeper insight into what Ocearch is about.
An Interview with Chris Fischer
On the foredeck of the MV Ocearch, moored at Simons Town on the 21.05.2012
All images courtesy Ocearch.
Anton Louw: So, do you surf?
Chris Fischer: I’m not a good surfer. I try to surf now and again. I do spend tons of time in the water. I’m a free-diver. Definitely bodysurf and stuff like that. I love to play in the ocean with my kids. But, there are lots of surfers on the ship. Almost everybody onboard surfs.
AL: Do you find having worked with sharks you’ve become less fearful of them?
CF: I’m a really data driven individual. It’s more dangerous to drive to the beach than to go swimming in the ocean. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning twice before getting bitten by a shark. So, no, you shouldn’t be afraid to go swimming with sharks because the statistical likelihood of you having an interaction is minute.
AL: What have been your greatest achievements to date?
CF: We’ve learned so much, we’ve completely rewritten the White Shark life-history puzzle of the Guadalupe (Mexico) White Shark. So, in the past they had an idea of where they were feeding, breeding and giving birth, and they were all wrong. We’ve also been able to leverage that to affect policy to put pressure on the shark finning mafias, and we’re hurting them in Central America quite a bit. With the Mote Marine laboratory, with Dr. Bob Hueter – I brought the ship round to the Gulf of Mexico, even though it wasn’t what our plan was. When the Gulf oil spill happened, we just felt an obligation to do something. So we took the ship round to Boca Grande, and we caught large Bull sharks and Great Hammerheads to give the scientists who were collecting all the toxicological information on all those sharks that roam the open gulf for the federal BP lawsuit, so we could learn if the oil and the dispersants had gotten into their body and was affecting them. I think this was a great contribution to the body of knowledge for the Gulf of Mexico. But most importantly for me is we are leaving a wake of PhDs behind us. When I support research in Costa Rica, and Mexico and California as I have in the past, we bring local PhD candidates and students, and those projects become the projects that they use to become the next PhDs – people who then counsel the government on how to take care of the resource after we’re gone. South Africa – there’s over 30 researchers involved in this project. There will be over a dozen PhDs that people will get using the data set that we have funded and we have enabled them to get. So that’s powerful when you’re looking for a global legacy.
AL: So, what’s the best part of the job if it’s not that?
CF: Well, that is probably the best part of the job. You know, it’s been two generations since anyone rose up on a global scale and truly gave the ocean a voice and levelled a global scale to affect policy worldwide and command meetings with policymakers. We’re funding and enabling the collection of previously uncollectable data, so that we can affect policy correctly – that’s rewarding. But, generally speaking, the job is hugely stressful and very draining. It’s not fun.
CF: I mean there’s a thousand ways to die each day. This is not a ‘woo-hoo’ type thing. It’s emotionally draining. It’s mentally draining. It’s physically draining. This is not just for fun.
AL: So, you’re driven by your passion for the ocean?
CF: Basically, the ocean has no time left. We’re killing up to seventy million sharks a year – mostly for a bowl of soup in China. And the sharks are the great balance keepers. They keep everything clean, and everything in balance. If we remove the sharks from the ocean, we will lose the ocean. If we lose the ocean, then we’ll lose the planet.
AL: How does your research differ from other projects done in South Africa to date?
CF: Number one: when I’m funding research, I do things a little bit differently. Typically, when you look around at research that’s going on on the ocean, you’ll have an individual researcher from this institution, and an individual researcher from this institution, and sometimes they’re competing for a finite amount of grants or funding. And so it’s not often that you get the individual researchers working together. More often, they’re competing for the same pool of money. So we’re forcing everyone to collaborate and share all the data. So, we have the smartest people in the world with access to everything, so we can learn quicker so the ocean can recover sooner I’ve seen the frustration when different researchers have different parts of the puzzle with collaborating – and in the end the ocean suffers. And so we’ve completely shifted the model of research. It’s not the individual institution or researcher trying to get ahead. This is a national programme for the people of South Africa.
AL: Is there anyone else in the world that is doing similar tagging research?
CF: There have been some people who have been doing SPOT tagging on smaller sharks. What we have is a unique capacity to deliver the real ocean giants to the researchers. All the other researchers who are studying the real giants of the ocean are mostly stuck because they’ve never been able to get their hands on a mature specimen and let it go alive. And they have a multi-year migratory pattern and until you can get your hands on a mature one and tag it and then track it, you can’t solve the puzzle of its two year migration. So what’s happened is our ability of bringing world class fisherman together with world class scientists is just exploding the body of knowledge forward on the giants of the ocean. It’s the giant things that they’ve never been able to handle before, that is our big gap in knowledge in management. And if you can’t look after your mature breeding stock, you can’t look after the future of any species.
AL: From a South African context, what do we stand to learn?
CF: So there’s twelve individual projects going on today in this – the world’s largest White Shark research project in history. Right now, we don’t know where the local sharks are breeding or birthing – the two most vulnerable times in their life. In two years you will know where your White Sharks are breeding or birthing. You will then have the data you need to affect policy to look after those vulnerable areas.
AL: A lot of surfers are concerned about their safety. Could your research help make them safer?
CF: Absolutely. If you go onto the Ocearch’s Facebook page right now you can see the latest on where the sharks are. There’s an app being developed for all of them. Right now, your Sharkspotter programme gets an email directly into their office every time a shark tag pings. So real time tracking radically enhances public safety, especially in an environment like False Bay.
AL: I know its early days still for the data, but have you had unexpected revelations?
CF: Yes, quite a few already. We’ve had two sharks move down into the roaring forties – way south, which we didn’t expect. One of them has gone to Namibia and back already, which they didn’t expect. We’re seeing wholesale movements of all the sharks. Like all the sharks are East of Gans Bay at the moment. Why are they all East of Gans Bay? We’ve never even had the data to see these mass migrations of animals – loosely collected from maybe over a hundred kilometres but all moving in similar directions. One of the projects we have we are scraping bacteria off the teeth and their tongues and they’re culturing all that bacteria right now here in a lab to we’re develop the first antibiotic for shark attack victims for secondary infection. A lot of people survive the bite, and then lose the limb because they have secondary infection. So
AL: You’ve said that people who had an‘oceanic disconnect’ originally inspired you. [see Chris’s TEDx Seapoint talk on the subject here]?
CF: No, that was just what inspired us in the beginning. Here most people seem very connected to the ocean. In South Africa you’re surrounded by your ocean. What has surprised me a little bit and caught me off guard was the lack of understanding of how the system works. People here have been making huge leaps of logic that are totally disconnected from one another in the ocean. And I’ve never seen that anywhere else.
AL: Admittedly, I’ve hardly seen Sharkmen, so I’m not familiar with it, but a lot of people accuse the ‘gung-ho’ aspect of the programme. I’m sure it makes for better TV, but you don’t think it maybe distracts from your message?
CF: For the most part, to those people, I say: grow up. I’m funding 2.7 million dollars’ worth of research. If you want to write me cheque worth that and I don’t need to make a show, I’ll handle it and not make a show. I finished the TV here some time ago, and yet I’m still here trying to finish the science. You’ve got be real, it costs a lot of money to do this. So, I get people all the time who throw ideas out. ‘Well, you know, you should do this, and this, and this, and that.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, what’s the actual functional plan to that?’ Because ideas are interesting, but execution is everything. And so I can tell you this right now: I can go out now and sell 5 million dollars’ worth of TV. I can take half of that and fund two-and-half million dollars’ worth of research and I can solve your White Shark puzzle so that we can protect their future. I know I can do that. And so you have to make compelling content, so that people want to watch, so that you can generate two-and-a-half million dollars so you can fund the next research project, that’s a trade I’m willing to make for the ocean. Grow up!
AL: There have been quite a few accusations bandied around. The word I’ve heard was that National Geographic has ‘dissociated’ them from your work. How true is this?
CF: I don’t think that’s true. National Geographic had an option to pick up the show last August for its fourth season and it didn’t pick up that option. And so I went out and sold the show to another network. It will be announced in about a month. But it’s 10 times bigger. And that means I have 10 times the scale to affect 10 times the people to make them love the ocean. So for me, when I’m on a mission to impact the future of the ocean, the scale of awareness is part of that mission. So, if I have an opportunity to move to a network that’s 10 times bigger, I have an obligation to do that for the ocean.
AL: There’s a perception that you were ‘kicked out’ of the Fallarones and Guadalupe and that’s why you brought your operation here – where the authorities are more pliant to your activities.
CF: No, what happened was our weather window closed, and I had another expedition two or three weeks later and so we moved. Much like here, I’ve committed a window of time and when that time is up, I’ve got to move, because I’ve committed to helping the next set of people. We even took the supervisor of the Fallarones National Park came out and watched us catch a shark and tag it, and then said: ‘Proceed with your work as you like. That was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.’ And then we worked for the next few days, and then the weather came up and so we moved to Guadalupe because we had an expedition scheduled there. From here we go to Cape Cod, and then on to the Galapagos.
AL: Moving on to the most recent attack, it must be awful to be blamed for a fatal attack?
CF: It was just so disconnected from where we were, what we were doing. It was surreal.
AL: How did you respond to the public anger?
CF: It was impossible to understand.
AL: what was the feeling on the boat immediately after the attack?
CF: Everybody felt terrible for the family and the tragedy that they were going through. I think a lot of the guys felt really down. Here you’ve got a bunch of guys who staying away from their families for months at a time, putting their body parts on the line to helping your scientists to learn so that they can look after the future of your resource after we leave. And people are making up lies, and death threats and accusing them and it was emotionally draining and stressful for them. Because, they’re here and are actually giving an amazing gift to your country and to be accused of something that they are totally disconnected with was something that we’ve never gone through before.
AL: This sort of animosity, have you seen it anywhere else in the world?
CF: In Nor Cal (Northern California) there’s one or two ‘eco-derelicts’, as I call them.
AL: But it’s more isolated there?
CF: Yeah, it’s isolated here. I think if you look into it, its half a dozen vocal Facebookers.
AL: There is a new movement on Facebook – Ocean Lovers against Chumming, who currently have almost 7000 members…
CF: I would say those people don’t know how the ocean works. There’s an island out here in the middle of this bay, with a chum slick that’s been coming off it from millions of years. It’s like a massive highway out into the middle of the ocean and it stinks like dead sea-lion, and sea-lion poop, and bird poop. And so these guys who are coming in and putting in 25kgs of sardines are having zero impact on that system. But, their whole pursuit of chumming and chum is baseless. It’s emotional, and it has no data. What they need to do is come out and go on one one day. They’ll see, if you’re putting 25kgs of chum in the ocean right here, it’s like dropping an eye-dropper of water right in the middle of your giant coffee cup. And almost immediately it goes to parts per billion and is dissolved to nothing. This whole chumming thing here is so weird. I’ve never seen anything like it. What you really need to do, is get down to the real issue. What is the real issue? You’re a surfer, and you don’t like the cage divers, because they’re making money off the ocean – just say it. Don’t try and find some reason in chumming that doesn’t exist, because then you sound like you don’t understand how the ocean works. If you want say that people shouldn’t make money off White Sharks, and the tourism money is not welcome here, have the guts to say it. And approach policy or public management that way. But, don’t make up lies and make up issues that don’t exist.
AL: Another shark debate we are having at the moment surrounds using Shark nets to protect surfing and bathing areas in Natal. Do you have an opinion on this?
CF: I had to see it with my own eyes. I flew up there. For me, it’s just unimaginable. Before I started researching it, I thought that they were exclusion nets. No; they’re culling nets. What surprises me is when I go up there, and talk to the surfers; they love their culling nets. They’ll only go surfing on beaches that have culling nets. I’ve never seen a surfing community that wants their sharks killed. In other places where I’ve been, surfers are like, ah, we’re one with the ocean, it’s cool, we should all be here, they’re part of the system. So that’s the one thing that really shocked me – was how the surfers love their culling nets. In California there are White Sharks, and Baja and everywhere else, they’re not afraid them. I’m really surprised about the South African surfing community.
AL: So how would you suggest the South African surfing community get involved and help save the ocean?
CF: I think a great way to start is just banning the possession of shark fins in your community. If you came together and just banned shark fin possession in South Africa and all the Asian restaurants – who are the people who are trading in it – you would immediately save thousands of sharks. So, the fundamental first step is just get the possession of sharks fins banned where you live. And that’s not the case here. And anybody can do that, right? A surfer, a swimmer, a businessman can get behind the banning of the possession of shark fins.
AL: Cool, Chris. That’s all from me. Thanks for your time
CF: Cool. Take it easy