It’s ‘Shark Week’ on the Discovery Channel. I don’t receive Discovery, but the feedback I have seen on social networking sites gives the impression that Rob Stewarts’ fearless masterpiece is not one of the films being shown. Instead, sharks continue to be demonised, portrayed as monsters of the deep; ferocious killers. Watch Stewart’s film, SharkWater, and you will see otherwise, and have a privileged glimpse into the real world of sharks, one Rob obviously trained long and hard to be able to permeate.
Rob Stewart, underwater photographer, film producer, biologist and now NGO founder, explains why it took so much practise and training to be able to enter the world of sharks. One of two extra senses sharks possess is being able to detect electrical fields. A shark can sense your heartbeat, and know whether you are excited or scared. To appear as less of a threat, Stewart had to learn to control the pace of his heart, both on free dives and on scuba dives, to ensure the sharks would not be shy of him.
Shy might not sound like a description of sharks you would regularly hear, but the shark experts on SharkWater, people who spend half their lives under water and come into regular contact with sharks, will tell you that sharks are shy, hesitant creatures. They are not mindless killers, in fact, they’re very intelligent. They seem to know their teeth are rather ineffective against human skin so will normally leave humans alone. In one fascinating scene, Stewart’s voice over explains that a shark will bite to explore, trying to find out what a human is. The picture focuses on a diver (presumably Stewart) underwater, surrounded by sharks*. He allows them to nibble at his hands. He might as well be playing with a litter of kittens.
But SharkWater has a darker tale to tell. Its purpose is not just to highlight the truth about sharks, but also to bring attention to their destruction as a species. Sharks have existed on earth for more than 400 million years, they predate the dinosaurs and have lived through 5 major extinction events – but now Boris Worm, Marine Research Ecologist and Associate Professor at Dalhousie University, suggests they may be the most threatened species in the world. This is mainly due to the shark finning business. Rob explains that, at the time of filming – four years ago now – 1lb of shark fin was worth more than $200. In Asia, serving shark fin soup is a sign of wealth, a status symbol. It is also (wrongly) believed that sharks have a magical power to heal, and bit of shark are sold in pill form, hailed as a cure for cancer due to an incorrect belief that sharks don’t get cancer. For these reasons, shark finning has become a billion dollar industry said only to be rivalled in profit by drug trafficking. 100 million sharks a year are killed for it, and it is estimated that the shark population has fallen by 90%.
These numbers are as horrific as the images of shark slaughter captured by Rob Stewart on his mission across the world to find out what was happening to shark numbers. Shark finning is truly barbaric. Stewart comes across a long line, trailing illegally in the protected waters of the Galapagos. He says it is long enough in length to stretch into outer space. All sorts of marine wildlife can get caught on it and killed. The sharks that get caught panic, wrapping themselves in the line as they do, limiting their ability to breathe. The ones that drown on the line are the lucky ones though, as live or dead, they are hauled on to deck, their fins are hacked off and they are thrown back into the water. Finless, they sink to the bottom, to drown or be eaten alive. And yet, despite the shockingly decimated population of sharks, and despite knowledge of how brutal this practice is, there are no international regulations to save sharks.
And saving sharks is in our interest. In fact, marine experts think the shark may be key to our survival, and necessary to life on earth as we know it. ‘The one animal we most fear is the one animal we cannot live without,’ Rob Stewart claims at the beginning of SharkWater. Boris Worm explains that: ‘predators are fundamental in controlling the structure and functioning of ecosystems’. This is a problem biologists and conservationists are worried about on land as well as in the seas; if the top predators go (and many of them are threatened species), important controlling agents are removed from the eco-system. In the case of sharks, their demise could see uncontrolled growth in plankton feeders. Plankton are carbon regulators – without them, we face more imminent climate disaster. Once again, the delicate balance of the world’s eco-systems is being shown. It seems as simple as saying: if we loose the oceans, we loose the planet. Sharks are a major part of the oceans, one now that we stand to loose. Perhaps that is the reason they have managed to survive for over 400 million years – because they are so invaluable. And now we are wiping them out.
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. Since SharkWater was released, a number of countries have passed regulations on shark finning, shark fishing, and in some cases formed shark protection zones. Most recently the Bahamas banned the commercial fishing of sharks, creating a 630,000 square kilometre safe zone for sharks. They have also banned the sale, import or export of shark products. But as Stewart’s encounter in the Galapagos shows, Illegal fishing continues, and as long as there is big money to made out of shark finning, the shark fin mafia and black market, who threatened Stewart’s life during filming, will continue to operate. The oceans are hard to police. As long sharks remain endangered, we need people like Rob Stewart to keep vigil, to continue to raise awareness, and to petition against shark finning to make this practise illegal in as many places as possible. If we can do that, we might be able to save the shark, and in turn, save the seas.
Please follow the links and watch SharkWater, boycott restaurants that serve shark fin, and find out what else you can do to help.
*I don’t know what type they were but will try to find out from someone more knowledgable.