Sharkwater plumbs the depths for truth

“Rob Stewart’s documentary argues that the huge drop in shark populations is partly to do with humans’ baseless fears of a shy but magnificent animal.”

According to wildlife filmmaker Rob Stewart, sharks have a serious public-image problem-so serious, in fact, that it could lead to their ultimate demise as a species.

“An elephant falls for ivory in Africa and the whole world goes crazy,” Stewart says. “Elephants kill 200 people a year. We kill 100 million sharks a year and nobody notices or cares. Nobody wants to fight for the protection of sharks because people view them as dangerous predators of people. Yet sharks kill five people a year, on average.”

In his first feature documentary, Sharkwater, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (March 23), Stewart reveals that sharks have far more reason to fear us than we do them. Scientists estimate that in the past 50 years, the shark population has declined a staggering 90 percent, thanks to factors like irresponsible fishing practices and the lucrative “shark finning” trade, where millions of sharks are killed each year for shark-fin soup, a popular Chinese delicacy.

For Sharkwater, Stewart teamed up with environmental activist Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (Watson was of the original founders of Greenpeace) to expose the brutal massacre of sharks by humans and to reveal the true nature of the animal, which he claims to be very shy. Both men were recently at the Vancouver Aquarium’s new Aquaquest building to present a sneak peek of the film and answer questions about their mission to save sharks.

“In the film, I wanted to get people closer to sharks than they’ve ever been before so they could really understand them and see them as the important, magnificent animals they are,” Stewart says, “to portray sharks in a positive light so people can love them just like they love pandas, tigers, elephants, and bears-because people protect those animals.”

According to Watson, our lack of concern about what goes on beneath the surface of the water has to do with our alienation from it. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “We’re systematically destroying life in the oceans because we don’t really understand what the ecosystem is all about. We don’t know which life form is dependent upon which other life form for its existence. Unfortunately, people just don’t see the connections until all of a sudden it sneaks up and smacks them upside the head. And then it’s too late.”

“And every time it does happen, it’s always far more severe than anyone could have ever predicted,” Stewart adds. “So we kill off some sea otters on the West Coast-just a bunch of furry little guys floating around eating urchins-and the urchin populations explode. Then the urchins eat all the kelp, which are the breeding grounds for all the major fish in the area, so the whole Pacific herring population declines. And because there’s no herring, most of the ecosystem-whales, sea lions-basically everything is affected. It’s these connections that are really, really difficult to predict because they’ve taken millions, and even hundreds of millions, of years to form.”

The solution, according to Stewart and Watson, is not only for governments to implement more laws to protect sharks but also to change the public’s perception of the animal and turn people off shark-fin soup.

“We have to fight it on both the supply and demand side,” says Watson, whose Sea Shepherd Society dedicates itself to defending ocean wildlife. “On the supply side, we need to go after the poachers. On the demand side, we have to change people’s opinions.”

For example, in Singapore, Sea Shepherd and advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi recently launched a campaign that had celebrities publicly denouncing shark-fin soup. In China, actors Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh have done public-service announcements to discourage people from buying shark fins.

Watson says he believes that individuals have the power to make the biggest impact on conservation issues. “Governments don’t do anything; institutions don’t do anything,” he says. “It was because of Dian Fossey that gorillas are protected in Rwanda. These are the people that make a difference in the world.”

If we don’t make a difference, Watson and Stewart warn, the consequences will be grave. “We have to make a decision. Do we want to survive or do we want to go extinct?” Watson asks. “If we don’t start to live in accordance with the basic laws of ecology-to live in harmony with other species within our ecosystems-then our days are numbered. You know, hominids have not been a very successful story. There are 700,000 species of beetles and we’re the last surviving hominid. Why? Basically, we’re not that ecologically intelligent, and unless we start changing our ways, our days are numbered. We haven’t been around very long, and we might not be around much longer.”

Movies Features By Sarah Keenlyside
Publish Date: March 22, 2007