Sharks have long been unfairly maligned and ruthlessly hunted. As a result, this ancient predator, which plays a vital role in the maintenance and stability of marine ecosystems, is on the verge of being wiped out. Concerned about such dire circumstances, a young filmmaker from Canada, Rob Stewart, decided to make a documentary that would increase awareness of both the plight and the beauty of sharks. As he notes in an editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, he got much more than he bargained for:
In August 1999, I was a 19-year-old photographer on assignment to photograph sharks in the Galapagos Islands. Instead of filming the creatures in all their majesty, I wound up releasing dying sharks from illegally set long lines. These fishing lines — with baited hooks — can extend 80 to 90 kilometres in the ocean. The experience launched me on a journey to uncover why there was such a huge demand for sharks, even in the most protected national parks on earth.
The simple answer was the growing demand for shark fin soup. Through much of Asia, shark fin soup is a symbol of wealth and is served as a sign of respect. A single pound of shark fin can sell for more than $300 U.S. Shark bodies traditionally don’t have substantial value, so fishermen in search of higher profits started finning: discarding the bodies and keeping only the fins, wasting 95 per cent of the animal.
An elephant falls for ivory and the world is up in arms, but 100 million sharks die each year and no one bats an eye, largely because of the public’s perception of sharks. Sharks are viewed by most as dangerous predators, which if removed from the planet would make the world a safer place. The reality, which most scuba divers know, is that sharks are mostly benign to humans, and are incredibly important animals to life on earth.
n 2002 I set out to make Sharkwater, a film that would bring the public closer to sharks than ever before. I thought that if people could understand them, and see them as beautiful, necessary animals, they would fight for their protection. I had no idea it would become a human drama spanning four years and 15 countries, and nearly end my life.
I joined Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, in Los Angeles. Mr. Watson’s ship, the Ocean Warrior, was going to Cocos, Costa Rica, by invitation from the Costa Rican president to deter poaching in an ill-protected marine reserve. This journey shifted the focus of the project from a beautiful underwater film to a drama rife with corrupt governments, attempted-murder charges and machine-gun chases, all because of the demand for shark fins.
Studies by scientists Ransom Myers (who died last month) and Boris Worm from Dalhousie University in Halifax suggest that Atlantic shark populations have declined as much as 89 per cent since 1972. Populations of great sharks such as the great white shark, hammerhead and bull shark have declined dramatically. Further studies estimate large oceanic predator populations to be down 90 per cent in the last 50 years. [full text]
If you are curious what you can do to help save sharks, please visit SavingSharks.com for a list of ideas. In the meantime, here is a brief video clip in which Rob Stewart discusses the making of Sharkwater: