While most of us would recoil in terror if we came across a shark swimming in the ocean, Rob Stewart, a 27-year-old Canadian nature photographer, would be thrilled. Not only does he think sharks get a bad rap, but he believes they are essential to human survival.
This is part of the reason why he set out to make "Sharkwater," a documentary that defends and extols sharks.
"I figured if I made a movie that gave people the, you know, anti-'Jaws,' then maybe they'd unite behind this animal like they unite behind elephants and pandas," he said.
One of the reasons people need to unite behind sharks, according to Stewart, is that they are being killed by the hundreds of thousands.
Stewart found evidence of the declining shark population five years ago when visiting the Galapagos Islands. He had gone simply to take pictures of hammerhead sharks, but he was shocked to see 200 dead and dying sharks on miles of illegally set fishing lines.
"That made me realize that sharks are being wiped out, even in the most protected areas on the planet," he said.
He believes the sharks were being wiped out solely for their fins. According to Stewart, there is a huge demand for shark fins in Asia because it is the key ingredient in shark fin soup, which is considered a symbol of wealth. Because of China's recent economic boom, people can afford it and they can't get enough.
"Shark fin soup is a symbol of wealth. It serves as a sign of respect," Stewart said. "It becomes a ubiquitous dish at weddings, banquets and business dinners. Because of that, a single pound of fin is $200 to $400."
With this lucrative profit, finning for sharks has become more widespread and has helped fuel an underground mafia created to protect the practice. Stewart saw this firsthand while filming on a conservation ship off the coast of Central America.
"We find a pirate fishing boat illegally finning for sharks," Stewart said. "They were pulling sharks out of the water, cutting off their fins and throwing the rest of the body back into the ocean, which was illegal."
A daylong battle ensued between Stewart's conservationist ship and the pirate fishing boat — eventually the two ships collided.
Shark finning is illegal in Costa Rica, but local authorities detained Stewart, blaming his ship for the encounter. Stewart attributed this to the "Shark Fin Mafia," which has a lot of clout in poorer countries like Costa Rica.
Because they can rake in such a profit, Stewart said, governments often look the other way.
This became abundantly clear to Stewart when he was detained. At one point he ventured off from his detainment and saw tens of thousands of shark fins drying on the roofs, an amount that could translate into millions of dollars. He wanted to capture this blatant disregard for the law in his documentary.
"When we got on the roof of this truck and started filming these operations, it was really clear that what we were on to was something illegal and something that the government was totally ignoring," Stewart said.
Stewart said sharks are crucial to our survival because they top the ocean's food chain, providing stability to the underwater ecosystem. Ocean life provides 70 percent of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs 70 percent of the carbon dioxide, much of which is emitted by humans.