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Documenting the plight of sharks at the hands of organised criminals hunting them for their fins has turned photographer Rob Stewart into a filmmaker – and revolutionary, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

There’s a sense of irony in the air as we sit on the sun-drenched rooftop terrace of Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel, overlooking the harbour and out through the heads to sea. To a sea which is home to several species of shark, some of which are feared up and down the coast. Opposite me is Rob Stewart, the current world champion for sharks. Some six years ago when he was 22, he began to work on what became a feature length documentary, Shark Water, in which he portrays sharks as one of the most important yet most maligned creatures on the planet. Sydney is shark country, as is most of Australia’s coastal areas; occasional reports of shark attacks continue to maintain the shark’s image as predator, ranked along with the salt water crocodile for ferocity.

"a rebel with a cause"

Rob Stewart (looking near-namesake Rod Stewart rock star-ish in dress, hair and jewellery) is a rebel with a cause – the shark is and has always been through time, a vital part of the planet’s animal kingdom. Shark Water is a devastating indictment of how callous and ignorant people are endangering the shark. Driven by superstitions about shark meat being beneficial – and an aphrodisiac – Asian markets are a tempting outlet for illegal shark fishing. It’s huge enough to be controlled by organised crime and to corrupt (or overwhelm) small governments.

Small governments like Costa Rica, which sits on one of the two richest shark waters in the world, alongside the Galapagos. Rob’s crusade has enjoyed its first taste of making a difference recently, when Costa Rica finally banned all foreign landings of sharks. “That’s a big victory for the shark,” says Rob. “But we need a critical mass of audiences to engage with the film and create a groundswell.”

When he started making the film, he knew he wanted to force change, “but I didn’t know how to change the world. I wanted to change the public’s perception of sharks … but it’s hard.” Perhaps it needs someone like Steven Spielberg, who contributed to the misconception with his Jaws franchise, to say something. “We’re trying,” says Rob.

But the media around the world, “already gets the message,” he says. Screened at Toronto’s enormous film festival, Shark Water attracted positive reviews and a positive response to its message. In Canada it went on to break box office records, as in France, where it became the biggest grossing doco, likewise in Germany. It was five days after its Costa Rica opening that the Government placed the ban on foreign shark traders, in an effort to curtail the vast illegal business.

“Making the film I learnt a great deal more than I already knew about sharks,” says Rob, “and I also discovered just how much money there is in the exploitation of shark fins. It has attracted organised crime and even some Governments are involved …”

"made me a revolutionary"

There is evidence for this in the film, when the conservation vessel Sea Shepherd is rammed by a coast guard vessel, while trying to stop an illegal fishing vessel on a shark hunting trip.

Rob was a 22 year old photographer when he started working on the film, then in a small way. “I’m still doing it. The movie has changed me …” (He’s now working on a film about how humanity will survive the next century.) It’s made me a revolutionary.”

Published May 15, 2008

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