Where did your love of the oceans originate?
My love of the ocean really began back in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up chasing fish and frogs around the rivers and farm ponds and creeks of Kentucky and then my parents began to take us on holiday down to the Gulf of Mexico in Marco Island, Florida. It really transitioned from fresh water to the love of just water to the salt water when I was a young person, and then I think one of the real things that shaped my life was after fourth grade, my parents would pick us up at school in an RV and we drove all the way to Alaska and got back the day before fifth grade started and really found myself fishing on all types of bodies of waters from fresh water to the ocean, basically nonstop and just carried that passion for the water the balance of my l
Very cool. So it sounds like that kind of microcosm of a local aquatic environment really impressed upon you a love of marine life of all kinds.
Yeah; it was mostly just finding peace on the water and loving the water and just always wondering what was around the next corner that then led to recreational fishing. Then, as I began to do that later in life, realizing that people were disconnected with the ocean, wanting to make sure that our kids could enjoy the resource the way we did and so began helping scientists study what we were catching and releasing because we realized that they lacked capacity and access.
Why do you think that ocean exploration and apex predator research are so important?
If we lose our apex predators, we’re going to lose the whole ocean. There simply will be no fish for our children to eat if our sharks are not thriving; and we lack the fundamental data to manage them back toward abundance.
What we’ve done is cracked the code on handling these 4,000-pound animals, giant white sharks, tiger sharks, and given scientists safe access to them for about 15 minutes so they can leverage the latest technology. So for the first time in history we document their full migratory ranges and discover their mating and birthing sites, and once we have that information, we have the fundamental dataset we need as the building block for the future of the ocean and we can begin to manage policy to bring our sharks and other balance-keepers back to abundant numbers. They’ll keep marine mammal populations in check so there’s not too many of them. And they’ll keep all the second-tier predators from exploding and wiping out the food chain below them.
In your years in this field, do you think that public perceptions of apex predators like great white sharks have changed at all?
Well when we started on this project, we knew that we not only had to learn what had not been learned before, we had to learn at a rate that had never been achieved before because we’re losing 200,000 sharks a day (up to a hundred million a year for a bowl of soup). This whole project began because it didn’t pass the common sense test for me, to trade the future of the ocean for a bowl of shark fin soup. So we knew we had to learn what had never been learned. We knew that every day we lost, we were losing 200,000 sharks.
So we not only had to do the learning and achieve a rate that had never been achieved, we had to shift the tone of the conversation around sharks themselves. We had to try to shift the tone from one of fear to one of fascination, and we had to try to help people understand that we need to be loving on our sharks like love on our lions and our wolves and all of the apex predators on land and in the ocean to keep things in balance.
So, the strategy we had behind trying to shift that tone was that one of inclusion. It was open-sourcing the tracking so people could track the sharks and see where they were all the time, which, what that did was that gave people things to talk about all the time and you weren’t just hearing about a shark in the context of a shark sighting on a beach or a shark interaction or a shark attack.
It gave people [questions], like, oh why is Mary Lee hanging off the coast of Savannah, and is something important going on there, could she be gestating, where might she give birth, why did Lydia cross the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and become the first shark, North Atlantic White Shark tracked from the western Atlantic into the Eastern Atlantic, why are they going by Bermuda, is that a navigational beacon, is Florida the nursery, are they mating in Cape Cod? And so now, all of a sudden, there’s this tone of curiosity. I do believe that the tone is shifting around sharks and if you just go to the Ocearch Facebook page, or follow the Ocearch Twitter handle, you’ll see that. It is as clear as day. There are articles about people wanting Mary Lee or Katherine or Lydia to swing back by their beach and inviting them back and a really curious, appreciative tone about their role in the oceans. So, it’s crucial that that occur.
What are the most important ways that, in your opinion, people living and working in cities can adapt to help protect ocean life?
Well, I think the first thing they can do is [make sure] the possession of shark fin and shark fin soup is not legal in their state or community. If [you] do get the possession of shark fin and shark fin soup banned in your state and community, you will save thousands you sharks from your office or your house. That is a really big deal. You know, the other thing is get involved with the conversation.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.