Interview by Dave Moran with Rob Stewart, producer
It’s not often that you have a chance to meet a film producer who is, in a way, a modern day evanaligest whose religion is saving the sharks of the planet’s oceans and by doing so also saving mankind from possible extinction.
Rob Stewart is in a way a mini version of Al Gore who produced the Hollywood film, An Inconvenient Truth. Both producers have put in front of the viewing public scenes that are very disturbing. Scenes that unsettle our comfortable, sheltered lifestyle and powerfully make you feel uneasy about what mankind is capable of. You sort of know it’s going on but would rather keep it out of your mind’s eye.
Rob’s film Sharkwater which was recently screened during New Zealand’s International Film Festival takes you on a young man’s journey through 15 countries over five years. He was 22 when he began this journey which was originally ignited by his fascination and love of sharks. He wanted to dispel the public’s Jaws fear of sharks.
Rob comments from his blog: I had no film experience, I’d never shot a video camera, and I had no film allies when I started out making Sharkwater. My goal was to make a beautiful underwater movie about sharks. I figured if I could make a film that gave people a new view of sharks, counter to Jaws, then perhaps they’d want to fight for their protection as they would for pandas, elephants and bears.
Everything changed dramatically when we started filming because we uncovered and exposed the shark fin trade. This exposure also dramatically changed the film’s content as our cameras focused on corruption, espionage, attempted murder, hospitalizations, mafia and machine guns. At times it was very dangerous due to the money involved in the shark finning trade.
Sharkwater has been awarded 26 International film awards.
Dave Moran (DM): Near the end of the film you show that the harmless whale shark is now on the kill list of shark fin traders. What’s your long term prediction for the world’s population of whale sharks?
Rob Stewart (RS): The problem currently is that whale sharks are listed in appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES www.cites.org). This simply means that you can still trade in their body parts legally in various countries as long as the paper work is done.
The worst thing regarding sharks in general is that historical records show that the largest number of sharks ever caught was in 2007. This catch was carried out even though most fishing interests knew that the world’s shark populations had dropped by 90% in recent years.
Many shark fin traders are happy that some sharks have made it onto the endangered species list because this made their fins more valuable. In the next 10 years we’re going to see the extinction of a lot of the shark species that we know about and love like: tiger, bull and the great white, unless we change things dramatically.
Many countries have totally banned the trading of shark body parts. Tourism now plays a major part in the economy of many countries. They realize that the overseas income that can be earned from visitors wishing to see, for example, whale and great white sharks is substantial and is also sustainable in the long term.
Diving operations that offer scuba divers the experience of witnessing sharks feeding has grown in recent years. There are many ways that a live shark is of long term economic value for many countries.
(Editor’s Note: Since this interview CITES have moved whale shark to *Appendix 1: They are now listed as threatened with extinction. Life in our seas is changing at a rapid rate. The general public is mainly totally oblivious to this fact.)
DM: In your film Sharkwater you expose the massive black market in the trading of shark fins in Costa Rica. A trade worth more than the drug trade. What’s the status now in Costa Rica?
RS: Due to us exposing the shark fin trade during filming there was a huge reaction by the local people who had no idea that this practice was going on under their noses – you see their protest march in the film.
The Costa Rica government took immediate action and banned the private docks that were being used to land the fins. Then a short time later they legalized them again – pressure from some quarters I guess!
They then changed the finning regulations so that you could separate the fins from the bodies before you brought them into port. This naturally was a backward step because previously the boats had to land the complete shark before it was finned. Money talks!Things changed when Sharkwater hit theatres in Costa Rica in December 2006. The film’s release was promoted very well with two-storey Sharkwater billboards everywhere The public were in no doubt as to the shame the film bought to their country. Five days into the release the government banned all foreign fishing boats landing sharks. It was a good step in the right direction but whether they keep it or enforce it is another issue but at least public pressure changed things.
People are revolted when they learn that some sharks are still alive when they are finned and that these finned sharks can take days to die after being thrown back finless into the ocean.
Finning is a horrible practice that wastes 95% of the animal. It’s like killing an elephant for ivory or a rhino for its horns.
DM: What do you think people or organizations can do to try and bring pressure on governments to ban or regulate the trading in fins?
RS: The biggest issue is public awareness. Nobody knows what’s happening in the oceans because they can’t see it. People can’t see the huge nets that ships drag through the ocean collecting and destroying every animal and its ecosystem in its pathway. They can’t see that the world’s fishing industries waste 54 billion pounds of fish every year as by-catch while eight million people die of starvation. People are fairly aware of what is happening on the surface of the planet but are mainly ignorant about what is happening out on the high seas!
History tells us that public pressure can bring change. Public pressure brought women’s rights, it ended slavery, it brought racial equalities etc. Whaling ended in the West due to public pressure. Today this same pressure is continually building both externally and internally within Asian countries. Shark finning will, I believe, also be banned due to the public’s awareness and corresponding pressure on governments. Governments don’t implement legislation unless there’s public pressure and support for it. It is an ongoing human process. The best thing is for people to start talking about the issue, talk about what’s going on in the oceans and pressure their government. When any government body receives a certain amount of enquiries about one subject they have to take notice. It surprises me that New Zealand, which projects itself to the world as being very pro the environment, basically allows unregulated shark finning and the sale/export of fins!
I understand it is an election year in New Zealand. Concerned people should contact their local member of parliament and make sure he or she is fully up to speed about what is going on. If that member receives 80 enquiries about shark fishing issues and knows fully that people want the practice stopped then they are obliged to bring the subject up at central government level. Everything from creating and signing petitions, organizing rallies, that kind of thing all help in bring pressure on governments that the people want and need change.
DM: As far as you’re aware, are there any campaigns, either Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd or whoever to educate mainly Asian nations on the reasons for stopping shark finning?
RS: The organization Wild Aid (www.wildaid.org) are very proactive in informing Asian populations about shark finning and creating an anti shark fin movement within Asian countries. In China more than 75% of the people surveyed don’t know that shark fin soup has shark fin in it. The translation literally means fish wing soup. Wild Aid is educating young people about sharks and as a result many young people are now not serving shark fin soup at their weddings. There is also pressure on the Chinese Government that shark fin soup will not be available at any Olympic function. I understand great progress is being made in that direction.
DM: What countries are taking a very proactive role in banning shark fin products?
RS: The first four countries to ban live shark finning were: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. There are also about 16 countries across the European Union which have also banned live shark finning. The problem is that all these countries have not banned the trading or importation of shark fin products. In Europe they can fin as many sharks as they want as long as they put the fins on a shipping boat before bringing them into port. Not on a fishing boat! It’s a huge loophole. Spain for example has a ban on finning but you can land the fins in a different port to where you land the shark’s body! Loopholes are numerous and enormous so the fisherman and fin traders are exploiting them to the max! It’s really a big problem.
Progress is being made slowly. Recently the very large food retailer, Whole Foods, which has numerous stores throughout Canada and the US has taken all shark fin products off its shelves. So I think we can get there.
DM: In your film Paul Watson, the driving force behind the conservation group Sea Shepherd, had a major role to play in getting you into areas and consequently situations that normally a person would find sometimes difficult or dangerous to be in. How is his organization trying to stop shark finning and the associated trade?
RS: Paul is an eco hero. He’s the most outspoken and radical warrior in the most important battle humans have ever faced. He moves forward unshakably, and will be thought of as a revolutionary for centuries. Paul’s main tactic is to stir up shit so that the whole world takes notice and becomes aware of the issue. When they collide with a fishing boat they aren’t necessarily doing it just to prevent the death of 100 sharks on one long-line. They’re doing it to create a scene. That’s really what they do best.
DM: Are you still working with Paul?
RS: Currently I’m working with him. I see him at a lot of our film premiers, release parties and festivals. We are making another film which isn’t focused on Sea Shepherd or their practice.
DM: What’s this next film about?
RS: It’s about how humans are going to survive the next 100 years! We will be trying to point to the fact that mankind is not going to survive unless we have a revolution in changing the way we currently do things on this planet. The film will show a blueprint of what we need to do as a society and as a species to change such things as the way we view and run the world’s economies and industries so that we perpetuate human life on earth.
DM: Will you be doing this in partnership with Walt Disney Studios, like Sharkwater?
RS: I don’t know yet. We’re putting it together a little independently because we don’t want any commercial pressure.
DM: Do you have any other projects?
RS: Yes, we are producing a television series based on ocean conservation. It will be a reality series based on a ship crewed by eight young eco-heroes who travel around the world trying to get to the bottom of the most pertinent environmental issues facing the oceans today.
DM: When will the film and television series be released?
RS: They are both being released in 2010. Things aren’t taking five years any more because I don’t have to do everything! I’ve found people who know how to edit and write. They’re big projects!
DM: I understand you’re on a world tour to promote Sharkwater?
RS: Yes I am. Sharkwater has had a massive release in France, Germany, Philippines, Spain, and Sweden. From New Zealand I go to Australia for the film release there. Then I travel to the Cannes Film Festival where we will be promoting the next movie. Then it’s on to further releases of Sharkwater in Sweden, Span and Italy. I’ve been travelling for almost a year and a half promoting the film! It’s not a blockbuster so we don’t have $30 million of marketing money to throw at it. In Canada it broke box office records for a documentary. In France it was the biggest documentary release in their history. So Sharkwater is doing really well. We discovered one of the reasons for this was that the film got people excited about conservation who weren’t necessarily excited about conservation before. Young kids don’t buy cars, don’t drive, don’t care about global warming, and most likely haven’t seen Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth but after they viewed Sharkwater they became excited about saving the planet, saving people and saving sharks. It’s like saving the last dragon, the last dinosaurs that roomed this planet. Our main goal is to get people excited and involved about the environment in a different way.
DM: With the movie being shown around the world, have you seen an increase in the number of people saying âHey I didn’t realize what was going on’. Also any change in the public’s attitudes in countries where shark finning is practice?
RS: Yes absolutely. Everywhere we show the movie the unanimous reaction is ‘I had no idea’ – no idea that sharks don’t eat people – no idea that sharks are being killed for their fins – no idea that sharks are being wiped out to the tune of 90% already and the fact that sharks are an important element in our overall environmental balance. It makes people aware of issues they were previously unaware of. So far six conservation groups have been formed by people who saw Sharkwater and wanted to make a difference.
One that’s doing really well is Sharksavers (www.sharksavers.org). They have done a great deal of good already. When Sharkwater was released in Costa Rica it was only running for five days when the government banned all international long-lining of sharks. The Galapagos unfortunately went in the opposite direction. A new president was elected in Equador. He promoted the fact that If you elect me fisherman, I’ll give you what you want’. So as soon as he was elected he legalized long-lining in the Galapagos. He legalized the trade in shark fins internationally out of Equador and he banned a lot of the shark diving tours taken place in the Galapagos. Now the only shark diving you can do in the Galapagos are run by operators who have existing permits already for land tours.
DM: In Sharkwater it had that in the Galapagos shark-fishing was banned – have they reversed it?
RS: Yes unfortunately they’ve reversed it. But I think a lot of good is starting to happen. The film has only hit theatres in Canada, USA, England and Costa Rica so I’m still waiting for the critical mass to swell. More people will see Sharkwater on DVD than any other format. Being shown in movie theatres is great with hundreds of millions of people seeing it. But when it’s released on DVD and starts proliferating through that medium we’ll start to see a critical mass building because the whole world is going to know what’s really going on. That’s when governments will really start to sit up and take notice and start to make changes to their shark fishing regulations.
More than 75% of the people surveyed on the ground in China don’t know that shark fin soup has shark in it because the translation literally means fish wing soup. I believe enough in the compassion of people towards species and future generations of people that awareness will create a huge change.
People can’t see what happens in the oceans, so what is out of sight is out of mind. We waste 54 billion pounds of fish each year while 8 million people die of starvation. Ninety percent of all large predators in the ocean are gone and every fishery will have entirely collapsed by 2048. If the public knew that we depend on the oceans for survival, yet we’re destroying them every day in unprecedented ways, they would take a stand, just as they spoke out for whales and for holes in the ozone layer.
Sharkwater made me into a filmmaker, and through the process I made the most important film I knew of. Knowing the power of film to make a difference, I have to make the most important film I know of, so I’m making a film about how humans are going to survive the next 100 years.
DM: Thanks Rob for your time. I look forward to viewing you next film and also seeing how Sharkwater changes people’s and government’s attitudes and policies towards sharks.
*Note 1: CITES: Appendix I lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. They are threatened with extinction and CITES prohibits international trade in specimens of these species except when the purpose of the import is not commercial for instance for scientific research.
**Note 2: Traditionally, whale sharks were hunted for their liver oil, used for waterproofing traditional wooden boats. In recent years, demands for its meat and fins has increased. Huge fins have been reported on sale in China, Taiwan and Singapore.
Images from Wildaid (