Sharkwater 2
An Interview with Filmmaker Rob Stewart (Part 2)
November 20, 2007

Continuing our conversation with Rob Stewart, we asked about the official reaction to the upcoming release of "Sharkwater" in Costa Rica.

The crew of the Sea Shepherd trains a high-pressure water hose on an illegal shark-fishing boat during a chase in the oceans off Costa Rican.
Rob Stewart: We showed it to the government and the government freaked! The government went crazy. They said they'd pay to change the movie. They wanted to put cards at the end of the movie saying "This happened during the previous administration and this administration has taken concrete steps to protect sharks and eliminate private docks." They wanted to put dates in the movie saying that this is old stuff.

We said to them "Well, sure, if you have actually made any changes, we'll put them in the movie but the private docks are still there and nobody's protecting Cocos Island." We're using that as leverage now, saying: "You make changes; we'll change the movie."

They've actually got a huge press conference and a press screening of the film November 23, and the President and all of the Senate will be there and they want me to come.

GS: Aren't you concerned about your safety?

RS: They've got armed bodyguards for me. They've assured me they won't arrest me and that they'll keep the Taiwan Mafia away. I haven't quite figured out whether I'm going to go yet. But it looks like it's going to create quite a stir. And what's really interesting is that Costa Rica is holding a Sustainable Fishing conference, put on by WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature), November 15!

GS: What great timing! Here's a thought: you could invite the government to put together their own trailer to run after your film to present their case.

RS: I'm not going to give them any room to move or any play to work with us until they do something concrete and show me that it can't be reneged. They've banned the private docks before, shut them down, but as soon as public pressure waned, they let them back. So until they do something, we're just going to keep the pressure on.

GS: Why did they give you this mandate to go out and enforce marine fishing laws in the first place? Was this because they didn't think you'd run into any finners?

RS: I don't know what happened. Costa Rica has the money to protect Cocos Island. There's $3 million-plus dollars they collect every year just from boats mooring at Cocas Island. That's more than enough to protect the island. But all they have is a dinghy with a little outboard motor and a guy who has to protect a whole 12-mile radius on each side. He can't possibly do that. They have money to protect it: they just don't have the will and don't want to. I think what they were doing by inviting Sea Shepherd to protect it was to show the world community "Hey, look! We're protecting the Cocos."

I don't think they ever had any intention of protecting it at all because, as soon as we got down there, they thwarted all our attempts to protect it. It seemed crazy to us because we were invited in by the President of Costa Rica. But as soon as we did what they wanted us to do, the president washed his hands of us and we were left in the courts. It was crazy.

Rob Stewart kicks back and talks to The-Edge during a visit to San Francisco. Photo: Gar Smith
GS: This leaves me wondering how far influence of the Taiwanese currency goes. Is there maybe a split in the government and the president wasn't aware that certain people were compromised.

RS: I'd have to check these facts with [Sea Shepherd Captain] Paul Watson, but Paul told me recently that the past president was found to have $10 million in a Panamanian bank account -- all put there by the Taiwanese. The most recent report in the newspapers was that, because Taiwan was sort of a middleman in moving the fins to China, Costa Rica had begun discussions with China about bringing them to Costa Rica instead. As soon as they did that, Taiwan freaked and pulled their $92 million-a-year donation to Costa Rica. So now, the private docks in Costa Rica are moving toward Chinese instead of Taiwanese control.

GS: What are US laws on importing fins?

RS: You're not allowed to fin sharks in US waters but, if you go out there and cut fins off and throw the body back, that's illegal. If you mange to get your fins to a shipping boat before it comes into a dock, you're fine. So all you have to do is transfer the fins out on the open water to a boat that can bring it in as a cargo ship.

A woman was just caught in Miami bringing in five suitcases of fins from Ecuador. The only problem they had with her was that she didn't declare it -- not the fact that she was bringing in fins.

GS: So she just pays a fine and keeps the fins. How does the US stand up against some of the other countries we might consider standard bearers for good legislation?

RS: The US is one of the best. It's one of the top four because they actually do enforce the finning ban. Costa Rica has banned shark-finning. So has Ecuador, but they don't enforce it. Of the 16 or so countries that have banned finning, only a few enforce it and the US is one of those. But there are always loopholes. You can still remove the fins from the shark before you bring the shark into port. So that means that somebody has to stand at the end of the dock counting the amount of cut-marks-to-fins on shark bodies for every shark they bring into port. And nobody's going to do that.

So what they do is put the fins on the bottom and the carcasses on top. Nobody's going to dig beneath ten feet of dead sharks, right? I was recently sitting on a press panel at a conference with a bunch of US Fisheries and Customs and border protection people -- and Bo Derek -- in Miami, where it was revealed that the US is one of the biggest traffickers in shark fins in the world.

GS: I guess that's to be expected given the scale of our economy. I knew there was a problem but I didn't realize how vast and appalling it was until I saw your film. Is there any kind of a growing consumer's backlash against this trade?

RS: There is. It looks like it's going the way of the fur trade. It's becoming "tacky." One organization called WildAid has secured supporters like Lao Ming, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yo who have all come out and done PSAs stating that we shouldn't eat shark fins. They've got most of the major Chinese Olympians; the World Champion Ping-Pong player, champion swimmers and divers are all saying, "Don't eat shark fins." And the president of Taiwan's daughter said she wouldn't serve shark fin soup at her wedding. The Malaysian government has said it won't serve it at government functions. The movement has started, it's growing, and it's being lead by young people who realize that it's crazy to eliminate one of the oldest, longest-lived and most important predators on the planet has for the sake of a "delicacy" that has no flavor.

I mean, c'mon, there's no sense to this whatsoever. I think it's working but it has to happen fast. The most recent studies from Belhouse University in Halifax stated 93-99 percent of all the great sharks in the Atlantic are gone.

GS: Your link between the survival of sharks and the quality of the Earth's atmosphere was also stunning.

RS: Nobody has any idea! People have been talking about Global Warming for so long and I can't imagine that a movie about Global Warming came out and didn't mention the oceans once!

If we wipe out the oceans at the rate we're going, we're in a ten-year time-period where we're going to wipe ourselves out. Global warming, oceans rising and all this stuff, we're talking 15-50 years, but the destruction of the oceans is happening right now. We waste 54 billion pounds of fish every year while 8 million people die of starvation. And most of the carbon dioxide global warming gas is removed by life in the oceans -- life in the oceans that we have no regard for or even talk about in the global warming debate.

There's 2.5 billion years of life in the oceans. You've got 500 million years of life on land. There's a relationship here that really needs to be emphasized. If people begin to understand that life on land depends on life in the oceans then we might really start to get somewhere.

GS: Have you been in touch with Al Gore's people?

RS: Yeah, Al Gore's people have the movie. Evidently he's seen it. But right before the Nobel Peace Prize he didn't want to say anything that could jeopardize his peace prize and now he's not going to say anything because he may run for office. So I don't think we're going to be seeing much support from them.

GS: De-demonizing sharks is an important part of the issue. I saw the film at the Variety Screening Room in San Francisco and when the lights came up I found myself sitting right in front of a huge shark. It was a leftover promotional prop for "Finding Nemo" but I still had this visceral response. While I really took the message of your film to heart, I realized how strongly I've been imprinted to think: "Shark! Danger!" So there's something to be overcome there.

RS: Hundreds of millions of dollars of Hollywood movies and the best filmmakers in the world are making movies that tell you that sharks are dangerous. There's hundreds of millions of dollars of headlines and TIME Magazine covers -- "Summer of the Shark," "Shark Attack" -- telling you that sharks are dangerous. We're a guerilla movement that's going to have to appeal to peoples' better senses. We're just showing people facts and letting them decide. If sharks are dangerous, they'd be eating people -- everyday.

GS: The basking sharks were gorgeous and the hammerheads were awesome. The fact that you just got down in the water with these creatures, interacted with them and you didn't get eaten -- you can't have a better argument than that.

Have you thought about contacting J. P. Toomey, the guy who draws the comic strip, "Sherman's Lagoon"?

RS: Yeah! We did an article in a magazine years ago, when I was trying to do what I'm doing now through photography. It would be great to get in touch with him.

GS: I've been trying to think of some plot-lines to "turn Sherman around," to indicate that he's actually been pretending to be this great predator of Hairy Beach Apes but, in fact, he can't stand the taste of them and" it's time to come out of the closet and admit that I'm not a man-killer, And I'm OK with that."

RS: That's a great idea. Maybe we could get Sherman to see a sneak preview of the movie somehow.

Sharkwater Facts

  • Shark experts estimate that more than 100 million sharks are killed for their fins each year.

  • It is feared that many species of sharks will be driven to extinction within a decade.

  • The IUCN's Shark Specialists believe the best was to implement a bon on the illegal shark-finning trade would be to require that shark carcasses be landed with find attached. The possession of fins alone would be illegal.

    Shark finning violates standards of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Convention on the Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.

  • The shark fins used in shark-fin soup are tasteless.

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