Featured T&T Conservationist: The Mega-Crusade of Dr. Mike Fay

Mike Fay likes to introduce himself as a humble naturalist, a man whose passion for nature formed during a childhood spent outdoors in the Sierra Nevadas and the woods of Maine. But dig beyond the idyllic intro and anyone can see: the man's a beast, a freak of nature. Today at 61 years old, Mike's covered continents and bodies of water as few field biologists have. Through that time, he's orchestrated some of the greatest feats of conservation data collection known to science, much of it completed on foot.

After garnering his B.S. at the University of Arizona, Fay has spent the last 40 years surveying the African continent, the first six years of those as a Peace Corps botanist in Tunisia and the Central African Republic. He then went on to complete his Ph.D. on the western lowland Gorilla in the Congo forests.

In 1992, Fay started flying a small, specially-designed airplane very low over the forests of Congo and Gabon to take surveys. Who flies a single-engine airplane thousands of hours 300 feet above the jungle canopy? Through these flights, he discovered that there was a vast, intact forest corridor that spanned the two countries.

Map fo Gabon

In 1997, Mike decided to take a walk from the Congo's Oubangui River to the Atlantic Ocean. He titled the expedition the Megatransect, a project which put him on the map as a conservation superstar. Mike walked the entire corridor, over 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers), surveying trees, wildlife and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. His aim was to bring attention to the last pristine blocks of forest in central Africa and ultimately, to protect them.

The Megatransect project galvanized the Gabonese Government to create a system of 13 national parks, the first in the country, making up some 11,600 square miles (30,000 square kilometers).

In 2004 Mike completed an eight-month low altitude aerial survey, called the Megaflyover, to capture high-res aerial images of the entire African continent. His goal was to illustrate in detail how natural resources were managed and possibilities for new conservation areas around the continent. He logged 800 hours, 60,000 miles and took 116,000 vertical images of the human footprint and associated ecosystems, many of which are available on Google Earth.

The Megaflyover project led Mike to additional surveys in Chad and Southern Sudan. He made major discoveries around massive wildlife migrations and perhaps most importantly, pinpointed a major issue: Africa was facing a serious elephant poaching crisis. On the heels of these findings, Mike helped initiate national parks management programs in Chad and South Sudan.

In 2010 Fay returned to Gabon to help President Ali Bongo implement his Gabon Green development strategy, leading him to vigorously fight poaching, and illegal logging and fishing. Since 2013, he's headed up a large-scale program in Gabon to manage the sea. Mike's been able to start to bring order into chaos and finally get Gabon to begin managing their fisheries. The major result from his efforts came in June 2017, when Gabon created a network of 20 marine parks and reserves.

For the last 26 years, Mike's worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society and for the past 12, served as an Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society.

Mike's Megatransect and Megaflyover expeditions through some of the most inaccessible territory on the planet are considered among the most significant in the history of African exploration. But that doesn't seem to let Mike ease into retirement.

The true scientist never clings to his or her work, but rather questions his or her findings for all of time. Today, Mike's perfecting his theories and plotting his next expedition to get the next set of answers. In the age of the desk-jockey scientist, Mike represents a rare standing breed of front-line field biologist and conservationist who refuses to settle for second-hand answers and calling a project "complete." In fact, he spends most of his time in the implementation phase of the conservation process: managing protected areas, wildlife and fisheries.

Thomas and Thomas is proud to endorse the work of Mike Fay and bring attention to the conservation work he offers to terrestrial and aquatic environments. We've sent him in the field with a quiver of T&T rods to use fly fishing as a tool for conservation in the world's most remote corners. We sat with Mike to hear how his work has reached from Gabon to British Columbia.


T&T: Your surveys have supported the designation of national parks, such as Dzanga-Sangha and Nouabale-Ndoki parks in the Central African Republic and Congo. Colin Powell visited with you some years ago to see the results of these designations on the African continent. Currently, in the United States, we have to convince many politicians that our national parks and public lands should remain such. This has been the case on and off throughout our conservation history. What can leaders in the U.S. learn from leaders in developing regions such as this when it comes to the values of and outcomes for our public lands?

MF: Unfortunately, we live in a world with 7.5 billion people and we all want what we want. I personally fly around the world in jets, eat what I want to eat and go and do what I want to do. Given a choice, most humans are like me. But I am a scientist, and this is where our strength lies.

We can actually use an amazing percentage of the planet's productivity and conserve nature. If we don't use science and we just use politics--inevitably influenced by money--to drive management, then we are done. Unfortunately, one of the oldest tricks to make money is to liquidate natural resources; it's a quick and easy way to make serious bucks. This is something that happens worldwide, but in the USA, we can be smarter than this. We possess all the expertise and experience to properly, scientifically management our natural resources.

I have been a fisherman and hunter all my life. If there were not natural, wild places for me to go to experience nature I may as well die. That is why I have worked my entire life to keep nature around. Here in Gabon, I have found a country where the importance of nature and finding the balance between what people want, sustaining productivity and preserving nature is becoming national policy. It pains me when politics take us the other way.

T&T: The places in which you choose to work aren't exactly known as peaceful reaches of the African continent. No doubt you have a solid handful of stories about sketchy situations. The expat field scientist is often witness to issues of politics, human rights and conflict in a way few are. How has being a scientist helped or hindered you in these regions? And how can the science related to terrestrial or marine park designation potentially assuage or escalate violence in conflict zones?

MF: Yeah, I've been through several wars and coup d'états and have witnessed a lot of horrible things no doubt. I have been spending quite a bit of time in the last few years in the Central African Republic. What people don't see or hear usually about a place like this is at the end of the day, this conflict is about natural resources and who profits from them.

When one group from the north profits from most of resources, when these resources become rare due to mismanagement, there is conflict. So, what a lot of politicians don't realize is that conservation is one of the best tools for maintaining prosperity, and law and order. I find that even rebels and bandits can often be worked with in managing resources.

I wrote a plan with a friend of mine in 1985 about what was going to happen in CAR if we didn't pay attention and help that country manage its natural resources. Now they-- and we-- are paying the piper once again for not managing the resource base.

T&T: Gabon isn't exactly known to anglers as a fishing super-destination. The Seychelles have become the African saltwater fishery popularized in the Western angler's mind. But you're serving as Special Council to the President of Gabon, overseeing the creation of a Marine Protected Area System and management plan. What does this plan entail? And what do anglers need to know about the fishery in terms of its recreational and ecological value?

MF: I have worked in the Seychelles on the outer islands several times in the past few years. What is striking is here is one of the smallest countries on Earth that's realized that conserving and harvesting sustainably from nature can account for the majority of the economy of the country. I think all countries should maximize the potential of their resource base in this way.

Gabon has awesome fish, lots of species--Cubera snapper, tarpon, crevally jacks, Guinea barracuda, threadfin reach world record sizes here. But, we have gone through a period of horrible marine management and of the fish therein. And, between the Nigerian and Chinese fishermen who are here to take advantage of a place like Gabon, this country needs to have proper management systems in place.

The first big job was to start policing the waters, busting illegal fishermen and protecting key areas like river mouth. We have just created a series of 20 marine parks and reserves. These are not "no take", but areas that will be properly managed to maximize productivity of all of Gabon's marine area. Sport fishing needs to occupy a significant place in management of the fisheries here and the marine parks we set up are meant to be used to produce hook and line world records in Gabon once again.

I just came back from the south of the country where we arrested a boat using a drift net that had in its catch a 55 kilogram, 2.2-meter long Guinea barracuda, a world record if caught on hook and line. If a sport fisherman had caught it, even just once, this fish would have produced 10 times more value than it did. This is a dumb way to manage.

Another thing we've done is revamp the Loango Lodge, which is located at one of the best river mouths in western Africa. It's booked solid for the season of all these fish, and this year we expect more record tarpon. If our plan works, Gabon will again become a destination for world record of many coastal species. I explored a river just the other day in which I discovered a stronghold for baby tarpon.

T&T: You just wrapped up a 333 day, 1,300-mile walk of the entire range of the redwood tree, covering ground from Big Sur to the Oregon border. Why the long walk this time? And, did you fish along the way? How do redwood forests tie into fisheries?

MF: This project was all about telling the world that the way we cut trees is bass-ackwards. Clear cutting and high grading natural forest kills forest productivity. The holy grail is found in the practices of a few selection foresters in the redwood forest. This trip convinced me that if we managed this way worldwide, we could produce twice as much wood, of higher quality) and conserve forest ecosystems.

The world's forests are in dire shape, especially the conifers in the northern climes. We need a draconian revision in the way we manage forests. The redwood forest was the most voluminous forest on Earth, ten times greater than any tropical forest on Earth. It is the most productive forest on Earth capable of producing almost magical amounts of wood when properly managed. 97% of this forest it was clear cut by timber barons and most creeks and rivers were basically destroyed for fish. Crashes in populations occurred. Californians are now spending more than was ever made on this timber to restore their forests, rivers and fish.

In some places fish are coming back. I only fished twice on the redwood transect, once when I was hungry and I killed a beautiful native rainbow in one of the hidden creeks in the Big Sur, a beautiful place that largely escaped the liquidation of redwoods. Then I fished for native cutthroats with a forester in Humboldt County. He wanted to show me that fish were recovering in his clear cuts. Maybe so, because of buffers around creeks, but fish would come back a lot faster if he would selectively log that forest and he would produce more wood of higher quality to boot. More and more acreage in the redwoods is being managed selectively every day.

T&T: Since 2008, you've annually migrated to the forests of Southeast Alaska to question a major mining development in British Columbia. Tell us about that and how it relates to recreational fisheries.

MF: I settled in southeast Alaska before I knew anything about the plans for giga-mines on the BC side of the border. It was when I started hearing about they plans and saw the wall to wall claim maps that I woke us to the enormous threat.

I just got back from western Alaska where, sadly, I wanted to catch king salmon on the Nushagak because this fish seems to be going extinct. I wanted to witness the chinook migration on a wild river before it was too late. I caught a 42" king on spey which is something I will never forget. But the run of kings was bad and the trends seem to be all down in Alaska. Biologists blame bycatch in other fisheries, but the waters in Alaska are changing fast. And that is not all that is changing.

I also fished for giant native rainbows on the Copper River, a tributary of Lake Iliamna, the second largest freshwater lake that lies solely in the United States. That is the most amazing trout fishing I have ever seen. And Iliamna like the Lake Baikal of the USA crystal clear, pristine. Large-scale open pit mines where there is lots of rain have a horrible track record of catastrophic leakage into watersheds, despite all the assurances that go along with approving them. The acid kills life in these systems and pollutes the water. Freshwater is more and more rare on Earth. Putting mines that dig up billions of tons of rock and earth to extract gold in British Columbia with high rainfall means possibly sacrificing the salmon fishery of southeast Alaska, same goes for Lake Iliamna.

I say find the veins, do hard rock mining where there are mother lodes and do open pit in arid areas and leave it at that. Pebble has very real potential to pollute Iliamna and rivers of western Alaska. Those systems are already suffering without mining.

T&T: What species of fish have you caught with our rods and how do our wares hold up?

MF: Some months ago, T&T owner Neville Orsmond came to Gabon to fish for tarpon and left some rods behind. Before that, my only contact with T&T was dreaming about owning a bamboo one when I was a kid. As soon as Neville left a 12 wt Exocett, I tried it against my former rod. It was like driving a Porsche versus a Honda--smooth, powerful, just the right mix of fast and slow. I haven't touched my old rod since. And I caught my first tarpon on it just last week.
I am going to Costa Rica soon to fish for tarpon and get a taste for how Gabon can emulate them in their sport fishing. Then I'm back to Gabon to try for world record tarpon and Guinea barracuda . . . then off to Cameroon to fish for Nile Perch, then Alaska for king salmon again, and finally CAR for giant catfish and goliath tigerfish. I've decided to make fishing a huge part of my conservation efforts until I can't walk anymore.

T&T: What's the biggest obstacle to conservation globally?

MF: When we make nuclear bombs, the science of the chemistry is known, checked and re-checked. We need scientists of all disciplines. We wouldn't try to counter their opinions with counter-opinions that are based on subjective opinions, or based on the money that could be made, yet with natural systems, humans do it all the time. Science should be as strict in managing natural resources. Politicians love military science and natural resources extraction science, but when it comes to managing the natural world responsibly, they toss sound science out the window. The hypocrisy is staggering.

To learn more about Mike and his global conservation work, check out these resources:
Megatransect by David Quammen (National Geographic)
Land of the Surfing Hippos by J. Michael Fay (National Geographic)
How the Nomad Found Home by Michael McRae

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