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In Sharkwater Extinction, the late filmmaker Rob Stewart’s vision for shark protection and ocean conservation lives on.
Sharkwater Extinction is an exposé style documentary that profiles the illegal shark-fin industry. It made it’s world premiere at Roy Thomson Hall at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was introduced by Stewart’s parents and sister—a moment they themselves described as bittersweet. Stewart died in January 2017 during shooting for the film, leaving behind hours of footage and pages of his vision that finally came together thanks to his friends and colleagues who finished the project not just for Stewart, but in his memory.
As the sequel to his first documentary Sharkwater (which also made it’s world premiere at TIFF back in 2006), Sharkwater Extinction follows in its predecessor’s footsteps re-examining the impact of shark hunting on the ocean’s ecosystem. The new documentary notes that since the first film, 90 countries have outlawed the practice of “finning”—when fishermen slice off sharks’ fins, leaving them to die, all for bowls of shark-fin soup.
While it’s illegal in most places, the new documentary highlights how the practice of finning still continues through lax enforcement and loopholes in international laws. It’s an eye-opening exposé that makes audiences re-evaluate how they see sharks. Here’s everything we learned about these super predators and ocean conservation throughout the film.
From the shorelines of Costa Rica and Panama, to even Florida and Los Angeles, illegal-fishing methods are being used to catch and sell sharks on the black market. A single pound of shark fin sells for about $200 USD, making the finning industry a billion dollar one run predominantly by the mafia who have found ways around the law. While their fins are sold for infamous shark-fin soup, the rest of their bodies are either thrown back into the ocean to die or their meat is sold in supermarkets and labelled as something else entirely. Yes, that means you could be eating a haddock filet and it could test positive for shark meat.
On average 100 million sharks are killed each year and after the film’s credits, audiences are notified that 25,000 sharks were killed during the time it takes to watch this film. At this alarming rate, Stewart’s prediction of sharks becoming extinct seems all too plausible and in no regard is it “Shark Week propaganda.”
While some might not be initially worried about the disappearance of a presumably dangerous and scary species like sharks, if they’re wiped out, there could be major disruptions throughout all ecosystems on earth.
Sharks have survived for approximately 450 million years on earth. They’ve seen the world start over five times during those years—and they’ve survived. But now, their population has dropped nearly 90 per cent in the last 30 years and if their species goes, other species will too, creating a ripple effect in the ecosystem. At the beginning of the film, Stewart tells a story of being lost in the ocean, when his only option was to not give up. It’s a metaphor for the challenges facing the ocean’s ecosystem and the planet’s ecological balance.
It’s a difficult process watching a film with a narrator—having him take you to different places and through different experiences—only to have him not finish his story. Yet this sad fact is exactly what might happen to sharks. While Stewart is gone, his work isn’t over yet. It may be considered a niche cause, but his legacy extends beyond the preservation of sharks. As he puts it, “Conservation is the preservation of human life on earth.”
Mankind is running out of time and excuses to save the oceans and although his time is up, Stewart leaves it up to audiences to finish out his mission. He challenges each and every viewer to “be conscious of where you eat, where you put your dollars, and how you live your life.” If each person were to do this, a real difference could be made.
One fact stands out from the beginning of the film to its very end: sharks don’t need to be feared. While they are a super predator and have the stigma of being dangerous, sharks are only responsible for killing an average of five people a year. When compared to the 20 people killed a year by elephants or the 37 from being struck by lightening, there’s a slim chance you’ll die by shark attack.
While their appearance seems to be the most intimidating thing about these predators, clips in the film show Stewart on numerous occasions petting sharks, swimming side-by-side, and even holding them, going on to describe the creatures as “sweethearts” and “cheeky.”
Stewart says this was his goal with the film, and his maverick documentary technique of taking the audience along with him rather than simply telling them showcases a shark’s perspective in ways viewers had never considered before. In one clip, viewers watch as a shark caught in an illegal drift net slowly dies as the netting constricts its gills with each thrash. You feel bad for the shark. Stewart gives these monstrous creatures empathy, making audiences feel sorry for them in a brash call to action.
Sharkwater Extinction swims into theatres October 5.