SANIBEL — Chris Fischer is a man with a mission.
"We have to do something before they are all gone," said the 43-year-old expedition leader for the National Geographic television series Shark Men. "I think the work we do will make a difference."
Fischer and his crew circle the globe aboard their mother ship, Ocean, a 126-foot, steel-hulled, converted Bering Sea crabber, catching, tagging and releasing the world's largest sharks.
The Louisville, Ky., native has been up close and personal with more than a dozen great whites in the 4,000-pound range, equipping the fearsome predators with satellite tags so scientists can study their migratory patterns.
Last month, Fischer and his crew were filming an episode for Season 3 in Boca Grande, where they got a chance to see Florida's apex predators, the great hammerhead and bull sharks.
"Those bull sharks are something else," he said. "They have a mouth like a great white and body that's half the size."
After catching and releasing several big bulls and monster hammerheads, the crew brought the Ocean to Sanibel, where the one of the show's sponsors was showing new products to the boating media.
Fischer, who splits his time between Louisville and nearby Marco Island, won two Emmy Awards for his show Offshore Adventures before launching Shark Men in 2009. Season 3 will air in summer 2012.
"I have fished all over the world for everything from blue marlin to tarpon," Fischer said. "But this show is not just about catching big fish. What we do, we do for science. The information gathered will go a long way to preserving one of the most magnificent creatures on earth."
Fischer, a member of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City, has poured millions of his personal fortune into Shark Men, which just completed its run of Season 2 episodes. But he said every penny will be worth it if, in the end, he can turn the tide for sharks.
"Two sharks are killed every second," he said. "That is 90 million sharks a year taken by the commercial fishing industry just for their fins. … Such a waste.
"If we allow this to continue, the number of sharks will plummet in a matter of decades and the overall balance of the ocean will shift," he said. "We can't just wait around to see what happens. We have to act, and act now."
On a typical episode, the Ocean's crew catches a big shark on hook and line, and coaxes it into the ship's "cradle," a hydraulic platform that lifts the shark out of the water so it can be tagged or have a DNA sample extracted.
The anglers and the ship's crew are all hard-core fishermen. They stand right next to the shark, and to date, no one has been injured. The dramatic scene attracts viewers, and more viewers means more advertising dollars, which Fischer needs to spread the word.
"It takes money to affect change," he said. "And if we really want to make things happen, we have to be able to work on a global scale."
Fischer would like to see the practice of shark finning, the removal of the fins (usually for soup) and dumping of the body at sea, go the way of the buffalo hunt. He is an ardent admirer of the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, but instead of a Speedo, Fischer wears surf trunks and paddles a stand-up paddleboard.
He has fished with presidents and testified before policymakers in Washington, D.C., and he believes that average anglers, the weekend warriors who catch trout on spinning rods, will be the vanguard in the next great conservation fight.
"Recreational fishermen will save the oceans just like the hunters saved the forests," Fischer said. "They are the only hope."
He is a vocal supporter of marine protection areas, but unlike other conservationists who believe these areas should be closed to all fishing, Fischer believes that only commercial fishing should be banned.
"We are not the problem," he said. "Recreational anglers take only 3 percent of the fish in the ocean. If you cut out the longlines, the indiscriminate killing and the bycatch, you will see an improvement in the stocks overall."
Fischer's nonprofit research organization, Ocearch, is working to not only promote cutting-edge science but to help shape policy. A champion of balanced, fact-based, sustainable fisheries management, Fischer hopes Shark Men is just the beginning of a new era in marine conservation.
"To succeed, we need everybody's help," he said. "We have to start now."
To learn more about Chris Fischer and Ocearch, go to ocearch.org.