Public opinion of sharks is typically less than flattering. We fear and label them as bloodthirsty killing machines that enjoy nothing more than snacking on surfers and late-night skinny-dippers. “Sharkwater” not only dispels the man-eater myth, but also teaches us that the deadliest creature in the sea is not the shark but – dramatic pause – humans.
In his first documentary, biologist and undersea photographer Rob Stewart simply wanted to show the world that sharks are nothing to be feared. But along the way he discovered something even more compelling: the billion-dollar shark-finning industry.
Every year, 100 million sharks are killed solely for their fins, which are used to make shark fin soup. The dish is a delicacy in China, even though the fins have no taste and are used only for their texture. Because a single bowl of the soup costs around $100, the dish serves mainly as a symbol of wealth.
In order to obtain the main ingredient, fishermen around the world employ a technique known as “long-lining.” This process involves dragging lines, several miles long, bearing thousands of baited hooks. These lines catch and kill more than just sharks. Turtles, birds and many other ocean species not specifically targeted by fishermen are enticed by the bait, become tangled in the lines, and drown.
Once caught, the sharks are hauled onto the boat where their dorsal, pectoral and tail fins are cut off. They are then thrown back into the ocean to either drown or bleed to death. More than 90 percent of the shark is wasted because the meat is worth much less than the fins and takes up too much space on boats.
There is no discrimination based on breed or age. All sharks caught are killed, including the endangered whale shark.
Upon witnessing the wholesale slaughter of his favorite animal for its fins, Stewart changed the direction of his documentary to focus mainly on the preservation of sharks. Midway through the film, he teams up with renegade environmentalist Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society on a mission to stop illegal finning in Costa Rica.
On this trip, the Sea Shepherd crew encounters a pirate fishing vessel and tries to bring it to justice. They attack the boat with water cannons in an attempt to flood its engines, and when that doesn’t work, Watson rams the poachers until they agree to be escorted to authorities waiting onshore.
This is where things get odd.
Upon arriving in a Costa Rican port, the Sea Shepherd crew, including Stewart, is arrested for seven counts of attempted murder by the government that invited them to fight shark finning. The poachers are set free.
While awaiting trial, Stewart uncovers a massive black-market finning operation run by the Taiwanese mafia, funneling millions of dollars into the Costa Rican economy. Seeing they have no chance of standing a fair trial, the crew does the only thing they can do: run.
In one of the most intense scenes of the movie, the crew boards their ship and makes a mad dash for international waters with a Costa Rican gunboat hot on their tail.
“Sharkwater” makes an excellent case for the preservation of the ocean’s alpha predator. While Stewart’s inexperience in the medium of film may be obvious to the casual observer, his footage speaks for itself. His shots of hammerhead schools and thick kelp forests, set to the music of artists like Portishead and Moby, brilliantly capture the beauty of the animal we so fear. And the images taken of finning boats in action are enough to make any audience’s blood boil.