Documentary indicts shark-fin harvest

While you can count on CNN to bring you the latest details in the case of two teens who cooked a puppy to death in an oven, the wholesale slaughter of an entire species at the hands of an organized and illegal fishery barely rates a mention on the nightly news.

For Rob Stewart, an underwater cinematographer and naturalist, the lack of media interest in unethical and unsustainable ocean harvesting was so defeating, he decided to fight back.

A feature-length documentary on sharks and the commercial feeding frenzy over their lucrative fins, Sharkwater joins the ranks of other environmentally urgent films such as An Inconvenient Truth and Who Killed the Electric Car?

Like them, Sharkwater is guaranteed to make you think long and hard about the daily decisions you make, and their impact on the world in general. Specifically, Sharkwater asks the viewer to take a second look at the toothy predators, and their ferocious reputation.

The appeal comes from the filmmaker himself, who addresses the camera in the first scene. Stewart says he’d been photographing sharks underwater for so long, that he began to see the animals as the most graceful and “perfect” creatures on God’s great Earth.

Unlike other species, the shark has remained genetically unchanged for millennia because it has no need for mutation. It was already in its ideal form, and ruled the oceans as its central predator for generations — until now.

Thanks to technological advancements in large scale fishing, as well as China’s increasing appetite for symbols of wealth and power, many species of shark are now facing extinction.

Demand for shark fins has outstripped supply, meaning even the graceful and entirely benign whale shark is being pulled from the water, dismembered, and then thrown back into the ocean to bleed to death — out of view.

Stewart said he hopes by simply bearing witness to the cruel but highly lucrative shark-finning industry he can change things, but effecting change on a massive scale isn’t so easy — and that’s where Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson enters the picture.

Watson and Stewart team up midway through the film to show the poachers in action. At one point, they’re invited to arrest shark-finners and bring them into port, which they’re only too happy to do. Using watercannons and a ramming strategy, the poacher’s vessel surrenders. Yet, when they reach port, it’s Stewart and Watson who are placed under arrest for attempted murder.

The sudden shift in policy is hard to comprehend until it’s explained to us in simple terms: Entire nations have come to rely on the black market shark fin trade in order to create industry, and even countries that rely on eco-tourism — such as Costa Rica and Guatemala — have been found guilty of concealing commercial shark-fishing operations.

The only thing that can save the shark now is public involvement, and that’s clearly at the front of Stewart’s wish list.

It’s the shark’s beauty that finally outweighs all the politics, and it’s also the strongest part of Stewart’s film. Shot in high definition, the movie is one of the most beautiful underwater movies ever recorded without the use of IMAX technology, and could easily become a nature classic.

Katherine Monk, CanWest News Service
Published: Friday, March 23, 2007

© The Edmonton Journal 2007