Shark fin frenzy

A taste for soup threatens the survival of the ocean's top predator.

Credit: Rob Stewart


There is a scene in Rob Stewart’s acclaimed documentary, Sharkwater, in which a live shark is shorn of its fins and tail and dumped into the sea to sink like a stone. It is writhing, bleeding and very much alive. Though this is only one of many gruesome scenes in the film, there is something unexpectedly human about this fish as it is pushed unceremoniously off the boat to die below the surface. Its desecration forces an uncomfortable truth on the viewer, and inspires sympathy for a species long-dreaded by the human race. It is the reaction the filmmaker was aiming for: to stir compassion for a creature that is dying because of a frivolous hankering.

Stewart met his first shark when he was nine. Peering through the thin glass of a snorkel mask, he made eye contact from 30 feet away before the elusive creature bolted into the deep blue of the Caribbean.

“As soon as it saw me it swam away, and that has been the case with every shark I met after that,” recalls Stewart from his hometown of Toronto, adding that in the two decades he
has since spent diving with sharks, he has yet to meet one that wasn’t afraid of humans. “They weren’t coming over to bite me,” he explains. “They were actually frightened.”
It was a brief introduction to one of the world’s most misunderstood species, and a pivotal moment for a child who would grow up to make a documentary that has sparked worldwide concern for the fate of the ocean’s top predator. Ample amounts of blood, sweat, and drama are poured into the 89-minute film, which examines the effect of the illegal shark-fin trade on the world’s shark populations.

Sidebar: B.C.’s own endangered shark

After thriving for 450 million years, sharks are now threatened with extinction. According to Stewart, shark populations worldwide have been reduced by 90 per cent in the past 50 years. And because they are the oceans’ top predators, entire marine ecosystems are threatened.
As described in Sharkwater, this decimation is due to the Chinese belief that sharks’ fins hold medicinal powers. The fin itself is tasteless; it offers texture without flavour, but consumers believe they will absorb the shark’s strength, and they’re willing to pay more than $90 a dish to eat it. Fishers around the world are scrambling to get their hands on this tragic delicacy. In turn they are fuelling both the decimation of a species and a multi-billion dollar industry that Stewart’s investigation links to the Taiwanese mafia, and that he alleges is second only to drug trafficking in income generation.

Stewart takes drastic steps in his film to raise awareness of the issue, including refusing to return to Canada when hospitalized with flesh-eating disease partway through filming. With the clarity of a primary-school textbook, the filmmaker illustrates how imperative the shark is to entire food chains in the global marine ecosystem. By linking their fate to all sea life, which in turn affects our own land-based ecology, he makes a clear case for the role of the consumer: by preserving the shark, we protect our future welfare as well.

“The biggest impact we as constituents and corporations can have is how we vote with our dollars,” Stewart says. “Every day we’re directing whole fisheries, whole economies, whole industries – either toward sustainability or destruction. I think it’s irresponsible for any corporation or restaurant not to serve sustainable seafood.”


Vancouver restaurateur Harry Kam­bolis, of C Restaurant fame, could not agree more. He has been dedicated to ethically sourced seafood for over a decade, and last April he invited Stewart to join him at a reception celebrating the documentary and properly harvested ocean fare.

“We always take an active roll in what comes out of our waters, and Sharkwater just fits right into what we’re all about,” says Kambolis. “It’s a really solid parallel for us. People are looking for change; they’re following the direction of noble, more ethical choices, and I think they’re expecting it from our companies now. We’re a seafood restaurant, and if we don’t take care of the products that we sell, we may not have anything to sell in the future.”

Throughout the documentary, Stewart employs risky tactics to identify the forces behind the slaughtering of sharks, while highlighting their importance in the global food chain. Sharkwater starts with Stewart’s dismay when a routine diving trip off the coast of the Galapagos Islands reveals myriad species, including sharks, dying on an illegal long line.

The film goes on to document the increasingly gruesome, unregulated world of shark hunting. Joining forces with renowned conservationist and unorthodox eco-activist Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Stewart sets off to halt an illegal shark hunting boat off the coast of Guatamala. After failed attempts to verbally rein in a guilty fishing boat, the team resorts to water cannons and ramming to stop the massacre. A few hours later they find that instead of being supported by the Costa Rican government for interrupting an illegal shark hunt, they are arrested in Punta Reinas for multiple accounts of attempted murder. It is during this time that Stewart captures some of the most powerful footage of the documentary, going undercover with a hidden camera to reveal massive caches of shark fins drying on the roofs of allegedly criminal enterprises.

When I ask him if he feared any aftermath for publicly outing the substantial operation, Stewart says he does fear for his saftey, but the film’s success outweighs any retribution he may face: “I never used to lock my door at home, and now I do, so my life has changed slightly, but we did what we did; we wouldn’t change anything, and if there are mafia people out there then what are you going to do?”

Stewart adds that whatever inconveniences he faces are far outweighed by the film’s effect worldwide. “Everywhere we play it, people love it; it wins more festivals, it does well in
theatres, all the reviews from all the magazines are super positive. There couldn’t be a better
reaction.” Sharkwater counters the pervasive fear of sharks that is due at least in part to popular flicks such as Jaws and Deep Blue Sea. It is because sharks are so universally feared that there has been little effort to understand or protect the species. It is fitting then, that Stewart set out to reverse the misconception through the very medium that created it.
“I realized I needed to hit people emotionally with what was happening with sharks, so I realized if I wanted to make the biggest impact possible, I had to make a movie,” he says. “When I started this project I knew nothing of movies – I had never shot a video camera, I had never gone to film school – so I was making it up as I went along, and everything was a trial.”
“Technically it was difficult to film under­water. There’s tons of particulate and debris in the water, so you have to get really close to things to make images look pretty clear,” says the marine biology grad, who spent four years working as a still photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Canadian Wildlife magazine before beginning Sharkwater. “When I started, I didn’t realize it would get so big, but by the time we were done with the movie we knew we had something pretty special, pretty different and by that point we hoped it was something to make an impression.”

Since its release in 2007, Sharkwater has won more than 40 awards from film festivals worldwide. Its poignant portrayal of the shark has inspired a massive shift in public perception, and caused governments around the world to tighten shark hunting regulations.