Swimming with sharks (one man's unfashionable crusade)

A A A

Rob Stewart was filming in one of the world's most heavily protected marine reserves when he stumbled across the massacre that changed his life. Swimming off Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, which inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the young Canadian wildlife photographer came across a floating graveyard.

For 60km, at regular intervals, the contorted bodies of hundreds of sharks hung like ghosts in the sea. Ensnared by razor-sharp hooks attached to a strong plastic line tens of miles long, they had all fallen victim to a commercial fishing practice known as long-line fishing.

"Something shifted that day," Stewart recalls. "I thought, 'If this is what can happen in the most protected marine reserve on the planet, imagine what is happening to sharks all around the world.'"

Like many who have seen at first hand the devastation that man inflicts on nature, the film-maker, now 28, decided he could no longer remain an impartial observer. For the past five years, Stewart has embarked on a one-man crusade to save the shark – the culmination of which is his award-winning debut film, Sharkwater, which opens in the UK later this month. Shot in high-definition, it has been hailed by critics as an oceanic version of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.



The American trailer for 'Sharkwater'. Contains scenes of a graphic nature

© 2007 Sharkwater Productions Inc.

Stewart hopes his documentary will help save a 400 million-year-old species that now risks being wiped out by the most prolific predator of all: industrial man. Each year more than 100 million sharks are killed in an unsustainable and unmonitored hunt that has slaughtered around 90 per cent of the global population over the past 30 years. Most of the sharks killed are used to make shark-fin soup – the $300-a-bowl luxury that is coveted across much of Asia for its "medicinal qualities", based on the erroneous belief that sharks never get sick. More often than not the sharks have their fins removed at sea before being dumped back into the water, where they either drown or bleed to death.

Unlike whales, which are protected by an international moratorium on hunting only recently broken by Japan, sharks have few high-powered friends and one of the most maligned reputations in the animal kingdom. Getting the world to start caring, Stewart believes, is the only way to save one of the world's greatest predators. "Sharks kill on average five people a year and yet they are loathed," he says. "Elephants kill at least 100 people but when a single elephant falls in Africa the world goes crazy. There was a time when, like the shark, the whale was thought of as a terrible man-eating monster – just look at Moby-Dick. But slowly people's perceptions changed. That's what needs to happen for sharks."

Protecting sharks is a risky business. In making Sharkwater, Stewart confronted the multi-billion pound shark-finning industry and uncovered a world of corruption, espionage and organised crime syndicates.

Six years ago Stewart joined the radical Sea Shepherd conservation group to help the Costa Rican government stop the long-line fishermen who were hunting inside the country's marine reserves. Led by fellow Canadian Paul Watson (who has been battling the Japanese whaling fleet in the Antarctic this winter) Sea Shepherd has earned itself a reputation for being one of the most aggressive and uncompromising conservation groups, unafraid to ram or scupper illegal fishing vessels.

But instead of filming sharks, Stewart found himself immediately pitched into a battle with an illegal Guatemalan fishing vessel. Despite being invited by the Costa Rican government to do precisely what they were doing, by the time Sea Shepherd made it to the mainland the police were waiting for them and arrested the crew for seven counts of attempted murder. Skipping house arrest, Stewart donned an undercover camera and found out why their host government had turned against them. In the private docks of a nearby town he secretly filmed what he describes as an international Taiwanese crime ring that still controls the global shark-fin trade.

Convinced that they would be unable to receive a fair trial in a country so involved in the trade, Sea Shepherd made a break for the Galapagos Islands and managed to outrun the heavily armed coastguards that desperately tried to turn them back.

"The days of letter-writing and petitioning are over," Stewart says. "If we were overfishing our seas by 10 per cent then maybe I would be critical of someone like Paul Watson, but right now we are overfishing by somewhere in the region of 1,000 per cent."

Beyond gun-toting excitement of eco-vigilantism, there is a serious message to Stewart's film: the extinction of the one of the world's top predators could have catastrophic consequences for the ecosystem of all the oceans.

"Life on land was only possible thanks to life starting in our seas and I believe the most important issue facing humanity right now is the conservation of our oceans," Stewart says.

As an example of how fragile oceanic ecosystems can be, Stewart explains what happened when sea otters were hunted for their fur to near extinction off the North American west coast.

"The obliteration of sea otters led to an explosion in sea urchins, which then ate all the kelp," he explains. "Kelp was the perfect breeding ground for Pacific herring, so their population also plummeted. With no herring to feed on, sharks, tuna and dolphins began to disappear. If that is what happens when you take a seven-million-year-old species out of the food chain, imagine what will happen when you destroy a 450-million-year-old predator like the shark."

Despite the world's current unwillingness to reverse the shark population's steep decline, Stewart remains confident that in the end governments will realises their mistake. "I think that, like the ban on elephant ivory and hunting whales, we will eventually see a worldwide ban on shark-finning. The question is whether that will happen in time."

Suggested Topics
Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing