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Profile on writer/director Rob Stewart

Filmmaker Rob Stewart is a man on a mission – to disavow us of a potent cultural myth about one of our most feared predators. Ask anyone what the scariest animal in the world is and the odds are good they'll answer 'the shark'. Despite our achievements and advances as a species, the fear of being away from our natural environment (dry land), not being able to see what's coming after us and the ancient, deep seated fear of being eaten by predators are very strong anxieties the entertainment industry has been only too glad to capitalise on.

According to Stewart, Canadian filmmaker, certified diver, underwater photographer and marine biologist, it's all rubbish. "Sharks represent the sum of many fears for us," he says during his recent promotional tour in Sydney. "They were set up pretty cruelly from the get go, but we just know so little about them. We've explored more about the surface of the moon than we have the oceans."

And the truth that's emerged from that meagre research, says Stewart, is that despite a century of cultural indoctrination, sharks don't eat people. If they did, he claims, we'd have been wiped out millennia ago. Any attack by a shark of a human, says the documentarian, is a case of mistaken identity or curiosity. "If sharks ate people, every shark bite would result in the removal of flesh, and they don't," he says.

Instead, according to the statistics, images and message of Sharkwater, Stewart's documentary released this week, we're the ones to be feared. According to a shark attack file kept by experts at Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo, there were 61 recorded fatalities due to shark attack in the 50 years to 2004 in Australia (most of them from blood loss on the beach from wounds). In Sharkwater, Stewart reports that we kill sharks at the rate of 100 million a year, mostly to feed the voracious appetite for prestigious shark fin products across Asia.

Worse still, the kill is more brutal slaughter than sensitive harvest. Lines dozens of kilometres long trail sharks as they slowly die on hooks. They're often hauled aboard rickety and unlicensed fishing boats, their dorsal fins sawn off and thrown back alive to slowly die, unable to swim.

In the film, Stewart joins the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, led by notorious countryman Paul Watson, an ex founder of Greenpeace and now a combative presence on the high seas. Watson voluntarily polices international waters at the request of nearby governments by hosing down or ramming vessels that won't identify themselves or comply.

Watson and Stewart attempt to crack open the huge sharkfin black markets of South America, organised crime syndicates that catch millions of sharks for their fins with impunity. They partially succeed, only for Stewart to return later to find huge protests about the trade going on in the streets. He finds it heartening, and says the same thing can happen everywhere.

"Surveys done by WildAid say 75 percent of people don't even know shark fin soup has real shark in it," he says. "So it's largely an awareness issue. [Large scale] whaling ended because of pressure from the west, even though consumption was largely driven by the east. If everybody in the western world knew what was going on they'd fight for it."

And with many species of sharks now said to be nearing extinction, Stewart doesn't only think the time is now, he thinks it can happen quickly. "Whales were once considered sea monsters until public perception changed and pressure mounted," he reminds us. "If you look at the end of slavery, women's rights, the end of whaling and the restoration of the ozone layer, all these changes happened really fast and they began with a few in the general public. So we can evolve again, we just need the public to know what's going on."

What's more, even if you're still terrified of sharks, Sharkwater claims that nothing less than our own survival is at stake. With no sharks, small fish would swell in numbers and consume most of the plankton life that produces the oxygen we breathe, with disastrous results. "Maybe people don't love sharks the way we love whales, but we realise the ecological significance of sharks," Stewart says. "Life depends on life."

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