By Jim Slotek
Rob Stewart never lived to see his own latest marine documentary, Sharkwater Extinction, nor the Ed Burtynsky inspired film Anthropocene. But those two most important environmental docs of the year are connected by death.
In Anthropocene, the most memorable takeaway is a scene of burning, confiscated tusks representing 10,000 elephants. In Sharkwater Extinction we see a similar confiscation, of 40,000 shark fins on a beach in Panama.
In tone, they are different. Where the first film carried a note of inevitability (human effect on the planet being so unstoppable scientists say it deserves its own name as a geological epoch), Stewart’s magnum opus is a call to action. If there is a mistake in its presentation, it’s ending Sharkwater Extinction with scenes leading up to Stewart’s controversial drowning death last year off the Florida Keys.
It leaves the viewer with a feeling of loss and sadness, where the entirety of the rest of the film evokes active indignation. A dozen years after Stewart snapped the world awake with the original Sharkwater, shark-finning is still going on. Nearly 100 countries have banned it, but make no distinction about its import as a commodity. Enter the criminal elements and loophole abusers.
But Sharkwater Extinction takes the shark slaughter (around 150 million fish a year) beyond Chinese soup and into areas that are normally the bailiwick of investigative journalists at 60 Minutes or Vice. He has samples of various human and pet foodstuffs and even cosmetics analyzed to discover the DNA of shark. He finds shark at fish markets mislabeled as swordfish (as well as labeled “shark”).
Being an apex predator, sharks absorb every toxin that has traveled its way up the food-chain, and are generally understood to be toxic as meat. Which means to a government that cared, the FDA would be all over the supermarkets, arresting and fining offenders endangering the public health. Why don’t they?
In Sharkwater Extinction, we also get a glimpse of the sanguine approach Stewart brought to coming face-to-face with the extermination of the creatures he loves. In a memorable scene in Florida, he and his crew join a tour-boat operator nicknamed Mark the Shark, an obnoxious seaman who claims to have killed 50,000 sharks (and has the jaws all over the walls of his seaside office to back up his claim). Stewart watches, his expression unchanging, as a tourist hauls up a hammerhead, poses for pictures and then throws it back in the ocean, where it will most certainly drown, having already begun to suffocate.
There are moments of unsullied beauty. Stewart and his friend and cameraman Brock Cahill shark-dive off Cat Island in the Bahamas to meet increasingly rare Whitetip Sharks (tagged as fearsome man-eaters by Jacques Cousteau). They discover a playful, curious fish with expressive eyes that teases them as they film.
But then there is the most disturbing scene of all – a then-legal “drift net” off Los Angeles County’s Catalina Island, laden with every creature that had the misfortune to swim into it. There we see sharks beyond hope, gasping for oxygen.
Happily, last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill finally outlawing drift nets off California coastal waters. Stewart’s footage of the marine massacre was said to be key to getting the bill passed.
Rob Stewart didn’t live to see that either. But it, too, is his legacy.
Sharkwater Extinction. Directed by Rob Stewart. Starring Rob Stewart, Brock Cahill, “Mark the Shark” Quartiano. Opens wide across Canada, Friday, October 19.