Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Rob Stewart

Share |
Ten Questions with Rob Stewart

Rob Stewart is an award-winning wildlife photographer and the director of Sharkwater. His work underwater and on land has appeared in nearly every media form worldwide: from BBC Wildlife, Asian Diver, Outpost and GEO magazines to the Discovery Channel, ABC, BBC, night clubs and feature films. In one of several trips to the Galápagos Islands, after encountering shark “long-lining,” an indiscriminate and wasteful practice, Stewart decided to make Sharkwater. Sharkwater: An Odyssey To Save The Planet, a companion volume to the documentary, was recently published by Key Porter Books. Click here to find out how you can win both the Sharkwater DVD and the book.

OB:

When and how did you first become interested in sharks?

RS:

My parents got me a pet goldfish when I was about one, and from that point on I was hooked. The oceans were the lost world, the last unknown realm full of creatures, monsters and fantastic adventure.

I read every book on the ocean, fish, reptiles and dinosaurs. As a kid, sharks were the last dragons and dinosaurs we have on the planet. People knew so little about them and most were afraid of them. I met my first shark when I was nine, and instead of biting me, the shark swam away in fear. This made me wonder why it didn’t want to hurt me, furthering my fascination.

As I studied sharks I learned the significance and difference of sharks on earth. They have survived for over 400 million years, predating the dinosaurs by 150 million years. Sharks have seen life on earth rebuild five times. They have two more senses than people. As a group of species and as an influence on the planet, sharks are absolutely unique.

OB:

Your book, Sharkwater, is a companion to your award-winning documentary of the same name. What inspired you to make the book and film?

RS:

When I was 20, I took a photo assignment to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, expecting to find and photograph sharks in all their majesty underwater. When I arrived, I found 200 dead and dying sharks on 100 kilometers of illegal fishing lines. This made me realize that sharks are being killed even in the most protected marine reserves on earth.
I spent eight months working with print media trying to get the word out that sharks were being wiped out. I set up a fund with the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos so that people reading the articles could donate directly to put patrol boats in the Galapagos to protect against poaching. We received very few donations, and I realized that people didn’t care that sharks were being wiped out because they were afraid of them. I figured if I could make a film that gave people a new view of sharks, counter to Jaws, then perhaps they’d want to fight for their protection as they would for pandas, elephants and bears. I thought I’d be in it for three to six months, and get to choose at the end whether I’d like to be a photographer or a filmmaker... after five years and numerous near deaths, I’ve learned more than I could have ever imagined, and am more energized than ever about making films that change our perception of the natural world. I want to make conservation cool.

OB:

Tell us about shark finning. What effect does it have on shark populations and on our environment in general?

RS:

About 70 million of the 100 million sharks killed every year are killed for their fins, to support the growing demand for shark fin soup in Asia. Shark fin soup is a delicacy, served as a sign of respect. Shark fins are worth 200 to 400$ per pound, so fishermen in search of greater profits started finning, where they cut the sharks fins off, and throw the often still alive shark back into the ocean, wasting over 95% of the animal. Shark finning is like killing an elephant for ivory or a rhinoceros for its horns. It’s incredibly wasteful, contributing to humans wasting 54 billion pounds of fish each year while 8 million people die of starvation. Because of the huge demand for fins, shark populations have dropped by 90% over the last 30 years.

Sharks sit atop oceanic food chains, controlling the populations of animals below them as they have for over 400 million years. Life on earth depends on life in the sea which sits below sharks in the food chain. Phytoplankton (tiny plants) are the greatest consumer of carbon dioxide (global warming gas) on earth, turning it into oxygen, providing us with 70% of the oxygen we breathe. Removing sharks is cutting off the head of the most important ecosystem for our own survival. The biggest issue in any global warming debate is life in the oceans that allows life on land to exist, yet it’s never spoken of... all we hear about is industry and carbon footprints.

We know relatively little about the removal of large predators from ecosystems as we’ve traditionally eaten animals at lower levels - the herbivores. One example is the sea otter, which was hunted virtually to extinction off the west coast of North America for the fur trade. The otter’s food population, sea urchins, exploded in numbers. Those urchins ate all the Pacific kelp (huge seaweed that form an underwater forest). Without the kelp, the Pacific herring (sardine like fish) had no breeding grounds, and without the herring, there were no sharks, sea lions, salmon, tuna, dolphins or whales. The ecosystems collapsed all from removing the sea otter, which as a species has only been shaping ecosystems for 7 million years.

What we’re doing with sharks is removing an animal that has been sitting atop of oceanic ecosystems for over 400 million years, and the ecosystems that will be affected include our own – the very air that we breathe.

So, the worst-case scenario – we cause catastrophic consequences through ecosystems that result in a great number of species’ extinction, including our own.

OB:

What was it like to work with conservationist Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society?

RS:

Paul has become a close friend and ally. There aren’t many people working for the preservation of the oceans, particularly ones that put their life on the line for it. Paul is a hero, and it was inspiring to work with someone who is so laser focused on his cause.

OB:

You had some hair-raising experiences while making your film, including encounters with pirates, a bout of the flesh-eating disease and arrests. Many people would pack up the project and head home. What kept you going?

RS:

The creation of Sharkwater was a series of worst case scenarios. The lowest low was when I was hospitalized for flesh eating disease. They were talking about removing my leg, and we were three weeks into shooting a shark film and had no shark footage. Everyone told me I should return home for proper medical care. My girlfriend and parents were upset, my crew was freaking.... I had to turn into captain positive to keep people from flying me home.... If I went home, the film would have never been finished because it was such a colossal failure that it would have been shelved. The expensive cameras would have been returned to the rental houses, and once freed from the hospital, I wouldn’t have been able to return to South America to film because of the huge financial hole I’d dug myself into. This was my one shot at making a difference and my first foray into filmmaking. I couldn’t accept that my effort to make a difference and to get into filmmaking was a failure.

The film also had a huge potential to do good... to change the way people view sharks so they would fight for their protection, ultimately saving the oceans and humanity from destroying the ecosystems upon which they depend. Knowing this, there was no way I could give up.

OB:

Describe the effect the film has had on shark conservation.

RS:

Five days into the film’s release in Costa Rica, all international landings of sharks were banned. Six conservation groups have been created by people moved by seeing Sharkwater (for example, sharksavers.org). A 15-year-old girl threw a fundraiser for sharks raising 10K for shark conservation. Great things are happening, but the biggest issue facing the oceans today is awareness, and we need more people talking about the issue and everything will change.

OB:

Thanks to movies, such as Jaws and sensational news stories about shark attacks, many people think of sharks as dangerous human-eating predators. Why shouldn't people be afraid of sharks?

RS:

Sharks are incredibly sophisticated animals that are generally not interested in people. Every year, 7 to 10 billion bathers swim in the ocean in areas where sharks hunt, and about 70 to 100 people are bitten each year, with an average of five fatalities. This makes sharks one of the least dangerous large predators the planet has. When sharks do make mistakes and bite people, they very rarely remove flesh.... If sharks wanted to eat people, they would, and the ocean would be a very, very dangerous place.

Every time you see a shark cage on TV, there is someone outside of the cage filming the cage. Shark documentaries often misrepresent sharks, making audiences think that they attack every camera, boat and cage in the water. People drag large pieces of fish or bait through the water, just in front of the shark, getting the shark to bite at the bait, eventually bringing the shark close to the camera to get dramatic footage. This is the standard for shark documentaries, and it’s atrocious. We spent 200 days a year outside of cages filming Sharkwater without a problem.

OB:

Your film has won several awards and gotten a lot of well-deserved attention. What is the most interesting or memorable response you've received from someone who has watched your film?

RS:

Sharkwater has been received phenomenally well. It broke box office records in Canada, and has done a great deal of good. Five days into the theatrical release in Costa Rica, the government banned the landing of any sharks from foreign vessels.

Six different conservation groups have been created by people that saw Sharkwater and wanted to make a difference. Most notably is sharksavers.org. Kids love the film, and we’ve receive thousands of letters from kids that have seen the film and taken action.

OB:

What can people do to help protect sharks?

RS:

The most important issue facing the oceans is awareness. People can’t see what happens in the oceans, so what is out of sight is out of mind. We waste 54 billion pounds of fish each year while 8 million people die of starvation. 90% of all large predators in the ocean are gone and every fishery will have entirely collapsed by 2048. If the public knew that we depend on the oceans for survival, yet we’re destroying them every day in unprecedented ways, they would take a stand, just as they spoke out for whales and for holes in the ozone layer. This kind of public pressure can result in international bans on shark finning, an international shark fishing commission and bans on the trade in fins.

Pressure your government to support a global ban on shark finning. Visit savingsharks.com, sign petitions, arrange rallies, show the film to groups of people, eat sustainable seafood and most importantly, get involved!

OB:

What's your next project?

RS:

The most important thing is making conservation cool and accessible to everyone. There’s nothing cooler than saving species instead of destroying them... than perpetuating human life instead of limiting it. Conservation is cool, we’re just trying to repackage it so everyone is on board.

Sharkwater made me into a filmmaker, and through the process I made the most important film I knew of. Knowing the power of film to make a difference, I have to make the most important film I know of, so I’m making a film about how humans are going to survive the next 100 years.

Based on our resource usage, it’s estimated that we would need six planet earths to sustain life. We waste 54 billion pounds of fish each year while 8 million people die of starvation. 90% of all large predators in the oceans are gone, and in the next 40 years every fishery will have collapsed, and a few billion people will be underwater.

Our relationship with the natural world is not working. We as a species haven’t realised that life depends on life. Conservation is the most important issue humanity has ever faced, as it is the preservation of human life on earth. Ecosystems and species will be fine as they have been for millions of years.

Sharks survived five major extinctions, watching life on earth rebuild five times. Sharks will be fine, it’s whether humans will survive, and how many future generations will live in lack, starvation and crisis because of our failure to wake up in time.

This next film points to cultural evolutions of the past – the end of slavery, women gaining rights, etc. – to show and hopefully inspire the kind of revolution necessary to ensure humans survive on earth.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad