Filmmaker Rob Stewart Fought to Protect Sharks, and Now We Must Continue His Work

©. Sharkwater

Lush Cosmetics and Humane Society International support the important ocean conservation work pioneered by the 37-year-old creator of 'Sharkwater' who died earlier this year.

On Tuesday evening, just ahead of World Oceans Day, an interesting mix of animal rights activists, green beauty fans, and saddened friends gathered at the Lush Cosmetics store on Queen Street in Toronto. It was an event to honor the life and work of Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart, who tragically died this past January at the age of 37 while making his third documentary about sharks.

Stewart's initial award-winning film, Sharkwater, launched a global shark protection movement in 2007. It challenged the assumption that sharks are dangerous and urged viewers to see them as vital and vulnerable. Outside Online described it in an article earlier this year:

Sharkwater explains how the ocean’s apex predator has driven the evolution of marine species for over 400 million years and plays a pivotal role in climate stabilization (by feeding on species that eat plankton, which transform carbon dioxide into oxygen). It was a visually striking portrayal: early on in the film, Stewart kneels on the sea floor, petting sharks swirling around and nuzzling him.

Sharkwater, and the ‘fin-free’ campaign that grew out of it, was a main driver behind shark fin soup bans, China’s decision not to serve shark fin soup at state dinners, and various companies’ (Air Canada, UPS, DHL, etc.) policies against transporting shark fins. Seventeen municipalities in Canada and numerous U.S. states have banned shark fin trading, but it continues to be a huge problem. In 2016 alone, Canada imported 140,000 kg / 309,000 lbs of shark fins. From the Humane Society website:

“Shark finning, which is the act of cutting fins from sharks and throwing the animals back into the water to die slowly, continues to occur at an alarming rate, affecting tens of millions of sharks per year.”

When Stewart learned of more illegal shark-trading happening in Cape Verde last fall, he embarked on another film, Sharkwater: Extinction. He was halfway through filming when he died.

Lush has worked closely with Stewart for years, helping to promote his ocean conservation message through the sale of its ‘shark fin soap.’ In 2014-15, the company raised nearly $500,000 for environmental groups working on shark protection. Today, on World Oceans Day, Lush will re-launch the product in all North American stores and donate 100% of the sales price to a foundation created by Stewart’s parents in his memory. Lush will continue to sell the soap until it has raised $250,000.

Lush shark fin soap

© K Martinko

At the event hosted by Lush, Gabriel Wildgen of Humane Society International (HSI) spoke movingly of Stewart’s legacy:

“He taught us that these animals are not monsters, and that they have far more to fear from us than we do from them... Over 10 years ago, virtually no one knew what shark finning was. Sharkwater put that issue on the map. [HSI] has shown it to politicians, to students, to members of the public, to journalists, getting the word out. Now you’d be hard-pressed to find a politician anywhere who isn’t fully aware of the problems of sharkfinning and that something needs to be done about it.”

Wildgen urged people to take action to protect sharks. In Canada, you can support Bill S-238, put forward by Conservative senator Michael McDonald, which would ban the importation of shark fins. In the U.S., there is similar bipartisan legislation in the Senate right now.

But, as Wildgen pointed out, we don’t need to wait for Senator McDonald’s bill. The federal government has the power to pass regulations that could end the trade of shark fin products immediately, but it needs to know that Canadians still care about this issue.

Stewart's parents

© K Martinko -- Brian and Sandy Stewart, Rob's parents, have pledged to finish his film and continue working to protect sharks.

The rousing message from Lush, the Humane Society, and Rob Stewart’s parents and film team is, get involved. Watch the film, sign this petition asking Prime Minister Trudeau to act now, and spread the word. Support shark protection organizations either directly or through the purchase of Lush’s shark fin soap.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s friends and family are determined to move forward. As his dive partner Brock Cahill told me emotionally, “Rob is directing from afar. Amazing things have happened since he died. The things we’ve seen in front of the camera...” He shook his head incredulously.

Brock Cahill, Sharkwater

© K Martinko -- Stewart's dive partner, Brock Cahill of Los Angeles, speaks to the audience at Lush.

Rob’s mother Sandy hopes that Sharkwater: Extinction will be finished in time for the Cannes film festival next spring, but if not, it will be released at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018.