Contributing Monkie Boise Thomas
Published on August 11, 2009
When biologist / filmmaker Rob Stewart set out to document a creature most of us see only in Hollywood movies (or in our worst nightmares), he knew the project would be one of the most difficult in his life. But he never could have imagined the extreme and bizarre nature of those difficulties. In the process of making this emotional and tragic film about the Earth’s most feared predators, he realized that sharks were in fact prey — and that their greatest enemy was mankind.
A lifelong fascination with sharks led Toronto-born Stewart, an experienced diver and underwater photographer, to embark on “Sharkwater”. Along the way, the filmmaker managed to expose and debunk the stereotype of the 4.5 million-year-old stewards of the oceans as bloodthirsty, man-eating monsters and reveal the reality of sharks as a key component to the earth’s circle of life.
But after surviving generation after generation of mass extinctions on this planet, sharks are officially in danger of being wiped out by human greed.
While the film provides a visually stunning high-definition journey into the world’s waters, not everything Stewart uncovered was beautiful. Both his journey and the destination were fraught with catastrophe and missteps – from deliberate boat rammings and various arrests on trumped up charges to espionage and hospitalization, before stumbling across on terrifyingly real exploitation and corruption of various shark habitats in the Cocos Island, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.
Shark populations are down an astonishing 90 percent from 50 years ago. It’s estimated that every year over 100 million are killed worldwide for their fins, for sport or out of fear of attack. In actuality, sharks have more to from us, Stewart says, adding that shark bites are usually shark mistakes. When sharks bite into human flesh, they’re trying to eat fish. When they realize their mistake, the generally release their grip. Last year, 100 human deaths were attributed to elephants, while sharks were responsible for only five.
Shark finning is the major devastation to these magnificent creatures. An estimated 100 million sharks per year are captured at sea and de-finned. Since there is little market for shark meat, the animals are tossed back into the ocean, usually still alive, where, unable to swim, they slowly sink to the ocean floor and are eaten alive by other fish.
While shark finning violates the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, each country is responsible for creating its own laws regarding their waters.
But there is plenty of room for change, and the film has helped to open the door. The Canadian environment minister recently championed sharks and brought much needed public attention to this issue. Stewart thinks any exposure of these atrocities is good exposure. As he says on the film’s website, “As long as the issue remains in the dark, there will be no protection for sharks and the ocean. The oceans are in deep trouble, which inherently means we’re in deep trouble as well. Awakening the public to the plight of the oceans is our only hope to gain protection.”
“Sharkwater” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year and is now playing in selected theaters.