Filmmaker spotlights the brutal practice of shark finning.
By Allan Richter
It’s not difficult to find shark fins. Search the Internet, and dozens of sources of the dried and salted Asian delicacy in numerous countries turn up. The fins ultimately land on the tables of status-seeking consumers who are willing to shell out $300 a bowl, standard fare at Asian weddings and high-end parties.
But that robust demand is helping decimate the world’s shark populations, conservationists say, and can potentially wreak havoc with the ocean’s ecosystems. In the past 30 years, populations of the great sharks—those over four feet long—have dropped more than 93%, says conservationist and underwater cameraman Rob Stewart, citing a study by Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Stewart, 28, has documented the shark fin trade in his debut feature Sharkwater, a film gorgeous for capturing the sleek, majestic sharks and other sea life against their deep blue backdrop. But it is also brutal as it bares shark carcasses spread along miles of fishing line. Most disturbing are its images of finning, in which fishermen pull sharks from the water, slice their fins off and toss the animals back, still alive. Unable to swim, the sharks die of suffocation caused by an inability to pull oxygen-bearing water over their gills (the equivalent of lungs).
The planet’s oldest large animal, sharks are top predators that are suddenly finding themselves prey, giving shark conservation a unique urgency, says Toronto-bred Stewart. “When you start reducing their populations, they don’t rebound,” Stewart says. Unlike salmon, for instance, which have thousands of eggs, most sharks bear only a few live young. “If you remove an important animal like sharks, which have shaped the ecosystem for so long, you’re going to have a lot more problems and ripples though the ecosystem.”
Though those problems are difficult to predict, Stewart says intrusions into the ocean environments of other marine animals shed some light on the risks. After Northwest sea otter populations were ravaged in the fur trade, for example, populations of their sea urchin prey exploded. That, in turn, wiped out the kelp they ate and removed a breeding ground for Pacific herring, a staple of sharks, sea lions and other large animals.
“It caused a huge ecosystem ripple,” Stewart says, “and the sea otter is 7 million years old as a species. Now we’re removing sharks from every single ocean on the planet, and the sharks have been sharing the ecosystems for 400 million years. You can imagine the repercussions would be much greater.”
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