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Mention sharks to Hap Fatzinger and a change comes over him. He leans forward, talks a little faster, smiles a little bigger. The long-time Wilmington resident and avid outdoorsman really wants his audience to get it. But let’s be clear. The excitement, some might even call it a passion, has nothing to do with what should be done about sharks, but, instead, what we need to do for sharks.

Fatzinger’s use of the collective “we” is no mistake, either. He believes in the power of people to make impactful change. Words like conservation, healthy habitats, ocean health aren’t just nebulous ideas in Fatzinger’s shark-fueled enthusiasm. They are his professional mission, a road map from which he will now lead the team at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

Fatzinger began serving as the new Aquarium Director in early January. Yet, his first weeks have been more homecoming than introduction. Fatzinger built his career at the aquarium, starting as a volunteer and moving up the ranks during an 18-year tenure at the Kure Beach destination. The last 13 of those years he oversaw the care of thousands of animals as the Aquarium Curator. In addition, he helped expand the organization from a small, local attraction to a nationally recognized aquarium. Yet, when an opportunity arose in 2015 and the director position opened at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, Fatzinger pursued it and successfully led that team for nearly four years.

At Fort Fisher, Fatzinger replaces former director Peggy Sloan, who became Chief Animal Operations Officer at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium in August 2018.

“To come back and help support this outstanding team is an honor and privilege and something I’m very excited about taking on,” said Fatzinger.

Fatzinger, 46, has lived in Wilmington since 1996, and continued to do so with his wife and family even during his time at Pine Knoll Shores. Now he looks forward to spending more time where he lives and works, engaging with the local community and sharing the important work of the Aquarium.  

“Hap understands day-to-day operations of aquariums and the global importance of conservation,” said David Griffin, division director, North Carolina Aquariums. “His commitment and extraordinary leadership skills will lead his team and the aquarium to succeed for years to come.”

Individual responsibility, a thoughtful approach and teamwork inform Fatzinger’s vision for the aquarium at Fort Fisher. These principles he learned growing up on a small farm in Colorado more than 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean and they continue to serve him well.

He knows providing an exemplary experience to each guest is important. Yet, it’s critical to connect visitors to the challenges faced by animals in the wild. For this reason, he plans to encourage not just understanding but action. 

“So many times in our culture people see big problems and they feel their individual impact is not significant,” said Fatzinger.

One area Fatzinger sees this happening is with single-use plastics. These disposable plastics end up in oceans, rivers and lakes and impacts animals and humans.

“Ultimately the Aquarium’s goal is to inspire action from our visitors once they leave the aquarium, so they positively act on behalf of animals and habitats everywhere.”

Why? “Because each individual action is important and contributes to the greater good.”

As an example, Fatzinger points to the individual contributions of the N.C. Aquariums’ entities (Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island and Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head) and then to their involvement in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and the collective impact of that international accrediting organization.

“As a member of the AZA, not only must we demonstrate the highest standards of animal care, education, research and conservation, we also understand we are part of a bigger mission, of 233 accredited zoos and aquariums working together to accomplish tremendous things for animals,” he said.

Fatzinger understands confident and forward-thinking guidance is necessary to move the aquarium forward, as projects are already stacking up. In late 2019, a major repair project will begin replacing roof panels and the fire suppression system in its conservatory. The team also plans to create an Asian small-clawed otter habitat in early 2020. If funding can be identified and approved, Fatzinger hopes a major renovation could be on the horizon, perhaps as soon as 2021.  

In the meantime, Fatzinger says the aquarium team will continue their focus on connecting visitors to the natural world and expanding conservation research.

“If we are going to have animals in human care to help share the story of wild populations, then we must both provide excellent animal welfare for each species from sea turtles to mummichogs, and we need to be out in the habitats doing everything we can to support and save these animals.”


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