Fischer fishing for sharks
Epic weather off the coast of South Africa, life-and-death struggles with predators weighing over a ton and the tranquil mountain scenery of Park City all have something in common: Chris Fischer and his company, Fischer Productions.
Fischer is the producer of "Shark Wranglers," a new television series on the History Channel featuring Fischer and his crew of scientists and seasoned fishermen working side-by-side to help save the ocean’s diverse ecosystem.
"We’re on a mission to make a global impact on the future of the ocean," he said.
But as if trying to save the world wasn’t hard enough, Fischer admits "it’s a b- to explore in 2012."
Rewinding to 1999, Fischer first realized a dream of how recreational fishing and the scientific community could come together following his Emmy Award winning series on ESPN: "Offshore Adventures."
The creation of three businesses, several televisions shows and millions of dollars later Fischer now says "we’ve caught the uncatchable to get the ungettable data." This newest project, Shark Wranglers, invites viewers to take a front seat journey as the crew tracks and tags Great White Sharks.
Fischer says sharks are a vital part of the ecosystem in the oceans of the world. With 75 million removed from the waters per year, oceanic regions are in trouble of collapsing.
According to Fischer, the shark’s greatest threat comes from an even deadlier predator; Homo sapiens. In China, sharkfin soup is valued as a luxury item and their appetite is proving disastrous to the world’s sharks. Great White Sharks are currently listed as "vulnerable status" on the IUCN Red List.
"The same guys that are illegal wildlife traffickers are the same people who traffic humans and drugs," says Fischer. "It’s one massive illegal global channel. And they don’t care; they will kill you. There are billions and billions of dollars at stake."
Over-fishing in the Sea of Cortez has shown what the removal of sharks can do to a sea’s ecosystem. According to Fischer, Humboldt Squids have "come in and wiped out everything" as there are no sharks to keep their population in check.
Information gathered from radio tags attached to a shark’s dorsal fin can help wildlife conservationists locate shark nurseries and protect them from further harm. But the advantages don’t stop there says Fischer.
"The birthing ground turns out to be a nursery for almost all the other species," he says. "When you find that you can leverage and protect that area and the trickle down is awesome. You end up saving the White Sea Bass, the anchovies, the skates and the rays."
But Fischer doesn’t believe eliminating fishing completely is the right path. Instead, he draws clear lines between commercial and recreational fishing and the benefits the latter has to the ocean. When there are "responsible people" on the ocean they tend to keep the "irresponsible away."
"With rod and reel it’s very difficult to make any sort of real statistical impact," he said. "You go out there with a gill net or a long line you can wipe it out. The long liners are just raping and pillaging, they can just do whatever they want because there is no one out there to say ‘Hey, that boat isn’t supposed to be here.’"
The work done by Fischer and his crew aboard the ship OCEARCH doesn’t come without a price, however. As a recent controversy following the death of a 20-year-old world-renowned bodysurfer, David Lilienfeld, caused some to question the scientific value produced by Fischer’s exhibitions.
In April Lilenfeld was attacked by a shark measuring over 13 feet according to GlobalPost’s online news. Some local residents insisted that the tragic accident occurred from the OCEARCH chumming the waters days before. Chumming is the act of baiting the waters to attract sharks in the area.
South Africa’s environmental authorities suspended the crew’s license to catch sharks in their waters, but following an investigation, reinstated the permit after it was determined there was no connection between the shark attack and the OCEARCH says Fischer.
Fischer says his crew was 160 miles away during the time of the attack, and left the area three days before. He said that they only used about 50 pounds of chum a day for a period of a day and a half. The attack happened 20 miles away from where the research vessel baited the water. "It is a completely different universe on the ocean. It’s like taking a bucket of water and throwing it into the ocean. It’s instantly parts per billion," he said.
Following the attack Fischer says the controversy surrounding the death strengthened his resolve and after surviving his own attack is now ready to "bring up a discussion of ethics" in ocean research.
"They bent me over, I got multiple death threats, they said they were going to blow up the ship, a guy died and I’m back on the water getting it done," he said. "The value of what we’re doing has been examined thoroughly – it’s been the decision of the government and the science community that we need to get back out. I got my permit back and finished my gig, I’m proud of that."
Safety for both man and fish is the main priority for Fischer. Due to the nature of their work and the unpredictability that accompanies it, he says there needs to be an open discussion on "acceptable loss."
"If you have to catch 100 sharks to solve a 450-million-year-old puzzle and you know you’re going to kill three of them to save the rest," he said. "Is it worth it?"
As future episodes of Shark Wranglers air on the History Channel, Fischer wants residents of Park City and the world to know the true intent of the show. After leveraging everything he owns to help fund research, scientist’s salaries and the equipment for the show, he says he has proven his commitment to the cause.
"Don’t want people to think Fischer productions is here making TV," he said. "I want people to think Fischer Productions is in Park City and saving the ocean. I really don’t give a s**t about TV; it’s a means to an end."
Shark Wranglers episodes air every Sunday 8 p.m. local time on the History Channel. July 15, airs a controversial episode revealing if a shark’s life was lost from the tagging process by the crew of OCEARCH. For more information, go to OCEARCH.org and also find them on Facebook, check out the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker at http://sharks-ocearch.verite.com/
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