'Sharkwater Extinction': Film Review

Powerful cinematic advocacy.
3/1/2019

A follow-up to the acclaimed 2006 documentary 'Sharkwater," the final effort from the late writer/director Rob Stewart again shines a spotlight on the issue of shark preservation.

Few filmmakers had as singular a mission as Rob Stewart, who dedicated his life to bringing attention to the increasingly endangered status of sharks across the globe. That life was tragically cut short in 2017 when he died at age 37 in a diving accident while working on what would be his third and final film. A sequel to his 2006 advocacy documentary Sharkwater, Sharkwater Extinction serves as a fitting cinematic tribute informing us that while progress has been made, much more work needs to be done.

"I met my first shark when I was 9," Stewart tells us early in the proceedings, and it was clearly the start of a lifelong love affair. While it's unlikely that this effort will succeed in fulfilling the filmmaker's stated goal "to make people fall in love with sharks," it certainly provides a greater understanding of their vital importance to the ecosystem.

According to the documentary, one of the principal reasons that sharks are so endangered is because of the huge popularity of shark fin soup in Asian nations. While shark finning (the practice of removing fins from the animal and then tossing it back into the ocean, where it inevitably dies) is now banned in most of the world, it's still practiced illegally in a widespread manner. One of the film's most sobering statistics inform us that the worldwide shark population has dropped 90 percent in the last 30 years.

The filmmaker traverses the globe exposing the exploitation of sharks in widespread places including Africa and the California coast. A Miami fisherman interviewed rejects the idea that hammerhead sharks, the species he specializes in hunting, have become virtually extinct. "That's Shark Week propaganda," he scoffs. We see shipping boats in Panama loaded with shark carcasses, and Stewart and his crew secretly track fishermen in Catalina who illegally catch sharks in their giant drift nets. They often risk danger in such undercover operations; a lawyer reminds them to be careful while attempting to film in Panama, advising them that they might encounter some "very bad players."

The doc sheds light on the fact that we are unwittingly consuming shark in much of the mislabeled seafood that we eat, which is dangerous since, as predators, they contain large amounts of mercury and other toxic substances. More strangely, tests conducted in the film by a marine biologist reveal that shark DNA is somehow present in other commercial goods as well. Thirty-three percent of pet foods tested positive for shark, and they're also found in fertilizers, livestock feed and even beauty care products. "We're smearing endangered superpredators on our faces without knowing it," Stewart sardonically observes.

There's a scattershot quality to the proceedings, presumably caused by the Canadian writer-director not living long enough to complete the doc. But the individual segments register powerfully and the underwater sequences are beautifully shot, providing ample compensation for the narrative choppiness.

Stewart's untimely death is not revealed until the last segment, ominously titled "The Last Dive." We see him during the beginning of a diving expedition in Key Largo, where he was attempting to film sawfish sharks. He died of hypoxia, apparently caused by a defective rebreather. A final montage serves as a moving memorial to this charismatic, passionate filmmaker who found his cause early in life and pursued it to the end.

Production companies: Big Screen Entertainment, Sharkwater Pictures, Diatribe Pictures
Distributor: Freestyle Releasing
Director-screenwriter: Rob Stewart
Producers: Rob Stewart, Sandra Campbell, Brian Stewart
Executive producers: Patrice Therous, Alexandra Stewart, Shannon O'Leary Joy, Shari Sant Plummer
Directors of photography: Rob Stewart, Davie Hannon, Shawn Heinrichs, Jordan Eady, Gobh Iromoto, Andy Brandy Casagrande IV
Editor: Nick Hector
Composer: Jonathan Goldsmith

85 minutes