Through Goodwin Procter's long-term partnership with the women's networking organization 85 Broads, we recently had the opportunity to interview ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques Yves Cousteau, and partner of 85 Broads member Susan McPherson.
As you introduce yourself at a cocktail party as an investment broker and your best friend is tied up closing a deal at her firm, Fabien Cousteau is introducing himself as an “explorer” and plotting his next foray into our deep blue seas. Or more accurately, Fabien is plotting his next trip to Florida to clean sea turtles caught in the Gulf oil spill while teaching students about the importance of repopulating oyster beds in the Hudson River. Fabien, a man who never takes vacations other than life and treats Saturday as just another day of exploration, recently added to his explorer resume by launching a non-profit organization called Plant a Fish. Launched on June 7th in honor of the 100th birthday of his late grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Plant a Fish is a grassroots movement that empowers and educates local communities to start restoring their aquatic backyards.
Fresh from a trip to El Salvador to announce Plant a Fish’s Billion Baby Turtles project, Fabien recently shared with us his passion for exploring the oceans, a few thoughts on the Gulf oil spill, and most importantly, his advice on how the average person and the corporate community can promote Plant a Fish’s mission of protecting our oceans for generations to come. As Fabien pointed out, “we’ve been neglecting the ocean, but the ocean is our other backyard.” While most people say that 73% of the planet is ocean, Fabien explained that this is only accurate on a two-dimensional map. If we start thinking three-dimensionally, we will realize that oceans represent 99% of the world’s total living space and house 95% of the world’s species. Therefore, it behooves even us non-explorers to start paying attention to our oceans, and ideally, broaden our horizons by infusing Fabien’s passion for our oceans into our everyday lives.
Your grandfather has been quoted as saying “people protect what they love.” How does his quote resonate with you and why do you love the ocean so much?
This quote is the most resounding as far as my mantra - the philosophy that has been passed down for three generations. To me, it’s just an integral part of how we should live our lives on our one and only life support system - it’s not something you have to think of consciously. It’s very difficult to put into words a feeling that is so deep, so ingrained, so infused in every part of one’s being, both mentally and physically, it’s just something you have to feel. It’s akin to a child loving their parent. Because, as we should be thinking of this, our species is really more of a child on this planet.
Have you found that your love for the ocean easily translates into your daily activities and daily missions? How do you go about putting this into your daily life?
It’s the fuel in the tank, the mission, and the reason for being. We do all these things because we know conservation is necessary and because we know the earth is a gift that we’ve been bequeathed. It is not only a privilege but a responsibility to be able to share this gift with the world. This entails everything from the smallest actions (for example, this morning I helped save eleven sea turtles from the gulf oil spill) to larger things like showing the beauty of the undersea world in some of the most remote parts of the world to those who will not get a chance to see the beauty firsthand and to really infuse these people with a notion of why we should care. It goes even so far as speaking with heads of states and heads of countries so that they can make the proper decisions. For example, although there were a lot of different entities trying to convince the government to protect the northwest Hawaiian islands, it was because of my father and his Ocean Futures Society team that we were invited to the White House. In front of the White House staff and President George W. Bush and his wife, we showed our two hour documentary and it was immediately so convincing to the President and his wife that the President stood up and said “We must protect this place.” Sometimes it just requires a personal touch and a visual representation to convince even the most difficult pieces to protect our water planet.
Do you feel that our responsibility to the oceans, and to nature in general, has changed between your grandfather’s time and the present?
I think it’s continually changing. My grandfather was able to impassion hundreds of millions around the world with his exploits, stories and shows. He was also able to motivate many countries around the world to start implementing the protection of certain resources, such as fish and the Antarctic. Now that was just the tip of the iceberg (no pun intended) - there’s a lot more to be done. We have a horrendous disaster that has come upon us - the Gulf oil disaster. And also at the same time, this disaster is a huge opportunity and a wake-up call to everybody to change their bad habits. The Gulf oil spill has so many people around the country interested, angry and motivated to do something with regard to the way we treat our oceans that we can’t squander this opportunity. We really must keep the momentum going and get people engaged and more involved. Because, we broke it and we need to fix it. That’s our responsibility as a species on this planet.
Will we sustain this momentum? Or, is the Gulf oil spill just another event that is in the media spotlight for a year or so before people go back to their old ways?
It’s all dependent on each and every one of us - on whether we stand idly by and watch the decay of our one and only life support system or whether we decide that enough is enough and get down and serious and busy. That doesn’t mean that every one of us has to go diving knee deep into oil-laden water but it means that we all have a responsibility to respect the planet, starting with curtailing our every day bad habits. I’m hoping we’ve engaged enough citizens around the world. I think this generation coming up knows more about the plight of the planet than most of their parents and grandparents. And it’s really encouraging to see that they’re educated and motivated to do something. But we can’t let the younger generations do it alone. We have to help them! We’re all in the same boat, we all have to row! And it actually feels really good. Being a small part of a turtle rescue effort, for example, has a really amazing, feel-good aspect to it. You know you’re doing just a little part, but in that one day and at that one moment, you know you’re doing something good for the planet and giving back to everybody in general. A healthy planet is a healthy economy is a healthy people.
Why should people who don’t live near the Gulf care about the oil spill?
Earth Day was started because of an offshore oil spill off of Santa Barbara, California forty years ago. It happens time and time again. How many blows does the earth have to take before it doesn’t recover in our lifetime? We have 3,600 oil and gas platforms in the Gulf alone, so it’s not a matter of if it happens again, it’s a matter of when it happens again. It’s certainly a wake-up call, but it also says “here’s what you can do - you can replant fish and oysters and mangroves.” We have to engage the general public about why Sam Jones from Wisconsin should be concerned about what happens 600 miles away. If oil gets on the gills of a fish, the fish can’t breathe because he cannot take in oxygen through his gills. Baby sea turtles will get laden down with oil and will not be able to come up for air. It’s a horrible way to die. Oil also ends up getting in the base of the food web. For example, it will cover zooplankton, which are the basis for life in the oceans and are responsible for a little over 60% of the oxygen that we breathe. So we’re not just suffocating the fish, we’re suffocating ourselves. If we want to continue breathing and enjoying clean fish on our plate, it behooves us to do something. Out of sight, out of mind is not a policy that we can take on this one.
What’s left to discover in the oceans?
To give you a barometer for that question, over the last hundred years we’ve explored less than 5% of our oceans. The problem is that technology is fairly limited, and more importantly, budgets for exploration are fairly limited. We spend over 100 times more in space exploration, to see if there are little green Martians in outer space, than we do in our own oceans - and we know there’s life down there. In 1980, I went with my grandfather for a two year expedition in the Amazon. Twenty-five years later, my father, my sister and I and our team went down for five and a half months to do a recap. In 1981, the scientists had found over 500 species of catfish. When we went back a couple years ago, the count, just for catfish, was up to 1,200. And that’s the Amazon, that’s not the ocean! So, there’s a lot left to discover and that jazzes me! My grandfather would always say “allons voir” or “let’s go see, let’s go see what’s around that coral reef.” That’s really the motivation of the explorer. I’m happy to say that my favorite dive is the next one. There are places out there that are still pristine. All you have to do is just pick a square meter of a reef sometime and just sit there and watch. You will see amazing stuff. Where else on this planet can you be amongst an alien world and experience something new and different everywhere you look? I mean, it’s just a phenomenal place.
What can the average person do to help Plant a Fish and our oceans in general?
Think of the environment and our oceans as a bank account - we need to stop eating away our capital, and start living off the interest. Our capital has been greatly diminished; almost 60% of the world’s total fish stock and over 90% of our pelagic species have been wiped out since the 1950s. Basically, if we are to start thinking of our planet as a finite resource we can then start thinking about replenishing that bank account so that we can live off the interest. And the action of letting that fish go in the water, or putting that oyster in that oyster reef, plants a philosophy in peoples’ heads that is one of symbiosis with the planet – there is no planet B! We can’t just pick up and leave if we trash this place! We need to start looking at our oceans as farmers, not as hunter-gatherers. We need to take our foot off of the wild species and let them replenish themselves and give them a boost. Let’s stop eating the big, top predators, such as the blue-fin tuna, and let’s start eating tilapia and barramundi, which can be farmed and harvested in closed aquaculture systems we can control.
How can the corporate community help Plant a Fish besides the obvious, giving money?
We don’t want to understate the obvious - Plant a Fish exists because of donations which are of paramount importance. For example if a corporation can’t partake in a Plant a Fish day with its employees, it can definitely give that flexibility to others by donating financially. But beyond that, corporations can have within their communities a program that engages employees to partake in some of the Plant a Fish days. Corporations can help spread the word, as well, and they can go into their local communities and encourage others to participate. At the end of the day, it’s about a partnership and engaging communities to care for and protect the oceans. We need to make sure that areas are cordoned off for future protection so that we can build sanctuaries where we’re restoring the environment.
What’s on your summer reading list, Fabien?
I have a stack of 40 books that are on the “To Read” list; 35 of which I haven’t even cracked open yet. So I am really behind! I have a book from Guy Kawasaki, The Art of the Start, one from Will Steger and John Bowermaster, Crossing Antarctica, and Follow the Water by Dallas Murphy. There’s another book that was given to me called This Will Change Everything by John Brockman. And of course, I’d like to re-read my grandfather’s book, called The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus. I have this fascination with cephalopods (octopus and squid and cuttlefish). I love octopi. They’re my favorite invertebrate in the world. They are such smart and amazing creatures. There’s a book by Mark Norman called Cephalopods: A World Guide, and it’s like a catalogue of all the different octopus and squid species and their specialties. I’m just salivating to flip through it. I just haven’t gotten the chance yet!
And, what’s your favorite vacation spot?
Life to me is a vacation. You know one of the wonderful things about what I do is that my career is my passion. I will be doing this until my last breath and probably beyond. I don’t ever take vacations because I go to some of the most exotic and remote places and see the most amazing creatures on the planet. To me, work is vacation. Some of my favorite places are the South Pacific, Bora Bora and Tahiti in particular, as well as the Maldives, Palau, Papua New Guinea and the Mediterranean coast of France. If you like safaris, Tanzania is a great place. If you like playing with great white sharks, in the Pacific, Isla Guadalupe is a great place but I hear that tours have been restricted. You can still go to South Africa and have a personal experience with white sharks. For whales, I’d say visit the humpback marine sanctuary of Maui. In the Gulf, Flower Garden Banks is a phenomenal place to go diving for corals; it’s a fireworks display of life.
* More information about Fabien and Plant a Fish can be found at www.plantafish.org