Captain Chris Wade is a shark expert, marine explorer and ocean advocate. After working as a marine biologist for 13 years, he shifted his focus into what he calls “eco-piracy.”
On his research vessel, R/V Sea Watch, Wade and his crew voyage to remote, protected places where illegal fishing methods are being employed in contravention of local laws. There, the Sea Watch crew documents these unlawful activities and builds partnerships with organizations that spread awareness of poaching and illegal fishing.
Through many international partnerships, agreements and collaboration, Captain Chris and the SharkBoat crew are now able to fight illegal fishing in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, while simultaneously effecting marine ecosystems research.
Captain Chris and his crew are currently on assignment protecting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica. Given the island’s remote location, it has proved difficult for enforcement agencies to protect it on their own.
Planet Experts spoke to Capt. Wade shortly before his departure for Costa Rica last year.
Planet Experts: So, how did you begin this eco-crusade? It’s a distinct break from your previous work.
Captain Chris Wade: Being a marine scientist, not many people actually come out and read graphs and read long papers. The things that I feel actually get things done in today’s modern technology world are videos. And that’s where a lot of my efforts have been focused over the last eight years, documenting what’s happening out there with cameras. It’s the easiest and quickest way to show people what’s happening. As we all know, a picture’s worth 10,000 words.
I was working in a marine protected area when my boat got wrapped by a purse seiner. [Editor’s Note: Purse seining is a controversial fishing technique that involves unspooling a circular wall of netting around a school of fish and then sealing it from the bottom up.]
PE: How did you get wrapped?
CW: We were on top of animals and they came into a marine protected area and said, well, we’re just going to wrap everything around these guys. That’s where it all started. I was like, ‘You know what, you’re kind of screwing with the wrong guy here.’
So I started fighting back. And I guess they looked at our boat and thought it was something very benign and they were going to do whatever was best for them and their fishing efforts.
PE: You have personally opposed poachers and shark finners, but how does this work from a legal standpoint? Do you get authorization from local governments to do this?
CW: Initially, I did not have authorization to do anything. I was just saying, ‘Dude, you’re not gonna come and wrap my boat and do this while we’re in the middle of a production in a marine protected area.’
Over time, I’ve taken a different stance and a different approach, because that’s going to do me nothing except get myself in trouble and my crew in trouble and probably get my boat sunk. I’ve gained authorization through partnerships, collaborations and agreements, and that is the reason that we are en route to Costa Rica. That’s why we’re going there and that’s why we’re starting our focus there.
As a grassroots operation, we have very little resources and very little funds. But I have the boat, I have the cameras, I have the people who are willing to go out with me and support me in these efforts, so we’ve really turned into a collaborative platform to help some of these other organizations actually get out there and affect marine research while having a presence and documenting what’s happening.
It’s funny, people always think of scientific research as this huge pot of money out there. And what I’ve found over my 13 years as a marine biologist in a public aquarium field, there’s not very much money out there. The pot is very small and it’s very competitive to get any of those funds or get any of that money directed towards these efforts.
It’s super expensive to go out and rent a boat in the class range of my boat. Including fuel and food and everything, you’re looking at between six- and ten-thousand dollars a day. So how long can you be out there? It’s not a very realistic thing to say, ‘We’re going to go out and we’re going to really find out what’s going on in an area and we’re going to effectively protect and document that area.’ How much can you find out in a week of being out at a spot? How much can you really find out if you’re hitching rides on a recreational dive boat?
That’s often what happens when researchers go out because they can’t even afford to get out there. They may tag some sharks and they may tag a turtle, but are they going to bump heads with an illegal fisherman? Are they going to be running nighttime patrols? They’re not. That’s not what [rental boats] are there to do; they’re there to take people diving for $5,000 a week, and that’s how they’re continuing to make their living.
I am trying to make this so that we can come back with a reality-based edu-tainment, if you will. It’s so we can provide a sustainable business model for this to continue on.
PE: Are you currently working on a pilot?
CW: I have created a mini-pilot. I’ll be honest with you, in most cases we’ve presented the footage to networks and it’s the funniest thing in the world. They are all interested in it – it’s smoking hot – they’ll come out, they’ll drink beer on the boat all afternoon and all evening and they’ll do tours and they’ll do thousands of emails and in the end they’re all concerned about liability. Because of the nature of the beast that’s in front of us. So I finally decided that – pardon my French – I don’t give a shit what they say, and I’m going to go and I’m going to do this one way or the other.
PE: Let’s go back in time a little bit. You began your professional career as a marine biologist in public aquariums, and I read in an article you’d written that you started noticing there were smaller and smaller numbers of animals in the wild while at the same time noticing larger catches from commercial boats. Is that what led you to ‘eco-piracy?’ Trace the journey for me.
CW: That’s what it was. Working in the public aquarium sector, I always thought it was a win-win for me because I was able to educate the people out there on the things that I’m very passionate about and that drive and motivate me. By putting them on display, you’re getting people to see. As Jacques Costeau said, ‘If they don’t love it they’re not going to protect it.’
But then, as time went on, I started to notice while collecting animals for aquariums that – well, I don’t know if you’ve seen my boat, but it’s not the boat you’re going to put next to a $15 million yacht. It’s the one that’s going to go stink in the back corner with the commercial fishing boats. And so I started seeing them unloading catch…after catch…after catch in these endless boxes of animals coming off. And it doesn’t take very long for even a normal person to realize that this is not sustainable. There is no way that you can continue to take that many animals out of there.
But going back to that story I was telling before, the real precipitance for me was being wrapped by that boat. They didn’t care. They knew that we had no power, no authority – it didn’t bother them at all to come and put my boat, my crew and the people that were in the water in danger by wrapping the boat with a purse net. That’s when I said, ‘Okay, I’m done. I’m going to do something about this.’
PE: So how will you operate when you get to Costa Rica?
CW: There is a proper procedure and protocol for all of this. Everyone gets their day in court – myself included. It’s not for me to act as judge and jury. I’m trying to make it so that we can actually document cases against people that are doing this on a habitual basis. I’m not looking for the recreational fisherman that floats in a hundred yards off of this, I’m looking for people that are going in there and targeting these areas and not really caring.
We now have that authority in Costa Rica and we’re heading down there now. We have a tight crew of six people. Once we get there we’ll be doing two weeks out, three weeks back in harbor, two weeks out, three weeks back in harbor, specifically focusing in on Cocos Island.
If you’ve ever read the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, that’s the island. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and it gets hammered by illegal fishing all the time.
Although they have some amount of protection on Cocos Island, their resources are very small and the area’s very large. The island is about 24 miles long and there’s a 12 mile radius around that island that is protected. So, if the park rangers there have a 23-foot panga and they’re 350 miles offshore, how exciting is that going to be to try to run 12 miles offshore with a boat that has one motor in the middle of the night.
We start operating in the middle to end of January and we have some of the top scientists in Central and South America that are going to be working with us. Generally speaking, every major NPO in Central America and Costa Rica is very excited about us coming.
PE: What kind of tactics are the poachers using?
CW: What we’re trying to do is to stop them from what we call ‘sneaking.’ They’ll go and set their long lines out into an area and allow it to drift through that marine protected area and come back and pick it up later at night. Again, there’s only a few park rangers that are there and, due to Costa Rica law, they have to have very specific parameters for making an enforceable case.
PE: Have there been any particularly harrowing experiences? I know you’ve been shot at before.
CW: We have been shot at before. That was when our boat got wrapped and I started heading toward their boat. I guess they thought I would turn tail and run, but I’m not a turn-tail-and-run kind of guy.
They did shoot at the boat in that event and then I’ve also been shot at in other places by just being simply offshore in an area. People get very protective of their areas and what they think is their right to fish. They look at my boat as another fishing boat – and they don’t know what we’re doing – so they just start shooting at it.
The high seas in the remote areas that we work in, it’s like the wild, wild West to some extent. It’s not like you can just call 9-1-1.
In one of the spots we were crossing, I was thinking, if I called out right now and I grabbed my satellite telephone or I popped off my emergency satellite beacon, how long would it take someone to actually get out here? Three, four, five days? Probably even more, to be honest with you. That’s the reality of it. That’s why they have lifeboats with supplies on them.
I get this a lot, ‘Oh, you have the greatest life, you get to do this, and you’re out on the ocean…’ No one really realizes that I’ve been living in an army-size style bunk for the last five years trying to put this whole thing together on this boat. It’s not like I have a bunch of money and there’s somebody that comes out in the morning and brings me breakfast and then we have Mai Tais on the back deck at noon. I go into an oily sauna – it’s like 160 degrees in the engine room – and I work there for three hours. It’s taxing, it’s challenging. It’s pretty tough.
They say, ‘Oh, but you’re out on the water and you’re doing this.’ Yeah, we’re eating rice and beans to survive this week. We have to buy fuel to get another 2,000 miles.
PE: So why do it? Why go at all?
CW: The key to all of this is the changing of perceptions and getting people to understand what’s happening out there. People can read a story, they can see a picture, but until they see the true situation of our oceans and the resources available in it, no one’s going to really make a change. They’re not going to make a change.
That’s what we’re trying to do: Get people to actually connect those dots and start drawing a picture on their own.
PE: Why don’t people understand what’s going on out there, do you think? What makes this so hidden?
CW: I think it’s really easy for people to put their head in the sand and order tuna sushi three times a week. I mean, how many articles are coming out on the state of bluefin tuna? Unless people stop and actually get involved in these things, they don’t ask, ‘Well where is this Mickey D’s fish filet coming from? How is shrimp truly caught? Is there bycatch? Is that sustainable?’
It’s just human nature to say they’re tasty little buggers and we’re humans and we can eat whatever we want.
PE: Everything I read says that if we continue to fish at current rates there’s going to be no commercial fish market by 2050. Do you think we can stop it before we get to that point or are we going to run right over that cliff face?
CW: The optimist in me wants to say that I think we can stop it. The reality of what I continue to see out here on a daily basis makes me say we’re going to have more challenges with that.
The ocean is this dark thing that we don’t really know what’s inside of there. It’s always been thought of as an infinite resource, even into the 1800s. With our modern day technology, you’d think that someone could come back and say, ‘Look, there’s only this amount of them left‘ and they’d believe it. But they don’t. Look at how many articles have come out about the state of tuna in the last six months. It’s an ecosystem. You can’t just take a piece out of it and expect it to go back to the way it was.
We really need to do things in a different way. If we as a human race were to say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to fish from the ocean for the next four years,’ would it fix everything? It would probably go a long way. Do I think we as humans are going to do that? I highly doubt it.
PE: Is there any message you’d like to get out to our readers before you head south?
CW: Part of the problem of overfishing is that we’re over-consuming. My position is, Don’t eat tuna, don’t eat shrimp. It’s the two easiest things that a normal person can do to stop the madness. It’s supply and demand. If there is no demand, they will take less of the supply.
I know that tuna is delicious, I know that we all grew up eating canned tuna, but at some point…it doesn’t matter if they say they’re certified or if a can has a little dolphin with a happy face stamped on it. These animals are out there and these are proven destructive fishing methods. It doesn’t matter what anybody says.
This mission is also going to take continual funding. We had a couple of crowdfunders, but to be honest with you I had to pull out of my own pocket to make it down here. So we’re going to have a couple more crowdfunders that are going to be coming out and we’d love to get some more assistance on that – to get people involved.
PE: Thank you for your time, Capt. Wade. Good luck and God speed.
CW: Thank you!
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