It may seem like a stretch, that a kid who grew up in landlocked Louisville would end up a crusader for the world’s oceans as an adult, but that’s exactly the way it happened for Chris Fischer.
For more than two decades, the Louisville native has focused on returning balance to the earth’s oceans by studying the one marine creature people fear most.
Fischer is a shark advocate and an explorer who is working to help researchers find new ways to protect sharks and the ecosystems they help maintain. In the process, he’s led more than 40 global expeditions to accelerate the ocean’s rejuvenation to balance and abundance. The research performed on his converted 126-foot Bering Sea crab vessel, OCEARCH, is helping to unlock the life history puzzle of great white sharks and other keystone species essential for the health of the oceans.
“If we lose the apex predator (sharks) then we lose all our fish and then there are no fish sandwiches for our grandchildren,” Fischer told the Courier Journal. “That’s oversimplified, of course, but the idea is important because many shark species are threatened by overfishing and a demand for shark fins in Asia. Their dwindling numbers jeopardize ocean habitats.”
Fischer’s work has been featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” “CBS Mornings,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” and countless other media outlets including The History Channel, National Geographic, The New York Times and USA Today. As a result of his ongoing work, the Louisville-bred explorer has received numerous prestigious recognitions like The Explorers Club Lowell Thomas Medal for Imagination in Exploration and the Nominee Trust 100 Award for top social innovators list.
Fischer returns to his hometown of Louisville on Monday, May 16, when he’ll be the featured guest at the next “Kentucky To The World” speakers series. He plans to share stories of his oceanic adventures and why the work he’s involved with is essential to the well-being of the planet.
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A graduate of Indiana University and Trinity High School, Fischer was that rare kid who preferred to spend his days muddy, sweaty and immersed in nature, rather than clicking away at a video game in his bedroom.
“Chris Fischer grew up chasing fish and frogs around Kentucky and now is helping scientists reshape the ocean’s ecosystem,” said Shelly Zegart, executive director of Kentucky to the World. “His story is a great example of how Kentucky-grown talent is changing the world.”
Like so many exceptional life stories, Fischer didn’t take a straight path to the ocean when he left Louisville in the early 1990s. (And if his name sounds familiar, it’s because his brother is Greg Fischer, the current Mayor of Louisville)>
You know those machines that dispense the ice and beverages at the convenience store? Back in the 1980s, his dad, George Fischer, bought a struggling business called SerVend. With the help of his adult children, including Mayor Fischer, the family turned the business around from the brink of bankruptcy into the largest business of its type in the world.
Chris Fischer remembers growing up in an environment where service toward others and an attitude of innovation were encouraged and fostered.
“My parents provided the platform which has allowed me to reach for the stars,” he told the Courier Journal. “I always knew as long as I kept trying, even if I fell, they would be there to catch me.”
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Although he worked with his brothers in the family business for a number of years, his passion for the environment and especially the ocean, never waned. When the time was right, Fischer created and hosted an Emmy award-winning big game fishing show called “Offshore Adventures.”
“I have always had a strong passion for being deep in the wild, especially on the water,” he said. “The fishing show was my way of having a life deeply connected with nature, on the water.”
The show’s eight-year run on ESPN 2 from 2001-2009 allowed Fischer to do more than demonstrate his expertise as an angler. It provided a platform to connect viewers to the importance of the planet’s oceans and the delicate ecosystems which hang in the balance.
Because his office was on the water, Fischer also met scientists attempting to perform marine research to restore balance to that environment. But they lacked the means (a boat) to travel out into the oceans to collect data and the skills to catch the marine life they needed to study.
Fischer realized he could provide them with both.
“I started inviting researchers to join us on the ship while we were producing the TV show,” he said. “I always had extra room where they could bunk and we knew how to catch the fish for their research.”
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Let’s say “Offshore Adventures” was producing an episode on Marlin fishing. Fischer and his crew might catch and release 25 Marlin during a 10-day trip for the TV show. That would be more than enough fish for the research team of scientists to study, tag and track.
Over time, the fishing grew to include sharks.
“I am not a shark guy or scientist. I am an ocean guy with a ship who can fish,” Fischer said. “I realized the opportunity I could provide to help with unprecedented and massive data collection that had the potential to make a difference in how we protect the oceans and their inhabitants.”
This collaborative approach has enabled hundreds of scientists from 90 international and regional institutions to conduct studies that have greatly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of ocean research. Since founding OCEARCH in 2007, the global non-profit has led 42 global expeditions aboard the M/V OCEARCH to collect previously unattainable research on our ocean’s giants such as their migrations, reproductive cycle, genetic status, diet, abundance, and more.
Based on this research, scientists have been able to publish multiple scientific papers, which have been leveraged to drive data-centric policy decisions. Because of the cutting-edge data collection performed on his ship, Fischer has worked on ocean environmental protection policies with presidents of a number of countries, including the US
“The ocean needs lots of sharks,” said Fischer. “Sharks keep everything in check. If we lose the sharks, we lose the oceans.”
Always the innovator, Fischer isn’t only focused on changing policy — he wants to change the way you think about sharks and their importance to the earth’s oceans. In 2013, Fischer launched The OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker and today, nearly three million annual users are learning about sharks while tracking them across the planet in near-real-time.
The most famous of the great whites on the Ocean tracker is Mary Lee the Shark. The mature female who measured 16-feet long and weighed 3,456 pounds when she was tagged near Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 2012, has nearly 124,000 followers on twitter.
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Mary Lee the Shark isn’t only Twitter famous, Fischer named the great white after his mom, Mary Lee Fischer who lives in Louisville.
This seems appropriate since so much of what drives Fischer to protect the oceans and educate the public so that we care about issues in the oceans stems from lessons and values he learned around the dinner table growing up in Kentucky.
“I am always reaching for more/ I guess you could say I am living a life of inching forward,” Fischer said. “At the dinner table, my parents would always say ‘you live in the biggest room in the world — that is the room for improvement’ and so I would say I am always trying to improve my work as a servant of the ocean.”
Reach Kirby Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @kirbylouisville.
‘Diving Deep: Chris Fischer’s Journey to Save Sharks and Bring Balance to Our Oceans’
WHAT: Kentucky to the Wolrd presents “Diving Deep: Chris Fischer’s Journey to Save Sharks and Bring Balance to Our Oceans.” Part Republic Bank Foundation Speaker Series. Fischer, OCEARCH Founding Chairman and Expedition Leader will be in conversation with Peter Schikler, Senior Counsel at New York City Law Department’s Environmental Law Division. They will discuss Chris ‘global adventures.
WHEN: May 16. The event will feature a reception at 5:30 followed by the program at 6:30.
WHERE: The Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater, 501 W. Main St.
COST: $35. Tickets can be purchased here.
MORE INFORMATION: kentuckyperformingarts.org