Wednesday, February 2, 2011

‘Sharkwater’ creator visits Simon Sanchez High School

THE man behind the world renowned and multi-awarded documentary “Sharkwater” made a quick stop on Guam to deliver a powerful message to the community about shark conservation through Simon Sanchez High School which bears the “Sharks” mascot.

In an interview with Variety, Rob Stewart said while in Saipan showing support for the enactment of a shark fin ban bill into law, he learned of a high school on Guam that was known as the “Sharks.”

“We got an email from the high school saying that they had a shark mascot and that there was a bill that was potentially being introduced in Guam. I was on my way back from Saipan and flying through Guam and I thought, well why don’t I come and say hi,” said the Canadian native.

To prepare for Stewart’s arrival, SSHS students made dozens of banners indicating their strong support for shark conservation which was displayed through the school campus’ hallways.
Stewart said he wanted to encourage SSHS students to become part of the worldwide movement to save sharks after being inspired by a sixth grade class at the San Vicente Middle School in Saipan.

The sixth grade students, he said, watched his film and realized something needed to be done. Moved by Stewart’s efforts, the class made every effort to spread the word about protecting sharks. They wrote to elected officials and restaurants that serve shark fin soup and used social networking websites pressing for some kind of movement to transpire.

“They pushed this initiative to the end and because of that class CNMI just became the second place in the world to enact a shark fin ban,” Stewart told SSHS students. “Now they weren’t the school that prided themselves in being the ‘sharks,’ but I think you guys could do even better than that.

You guys are the Sharks and I think you guys have an amazing opportunity here,” he added.

Hawaii became the first state in the U.S. to enact a shark fin ban bill into law. Hawaii State Senator Clayton Hee was the sponsor of the bill that became law last May and met with Variety in December for an exclusive interview. While on Guam, he also met with lawmakers to lobby for a similar bill.

Within a few weeks, Vice Speaker BJ Cruz introduced Bill 44-31, which seeks to prohibit the possession, sale, trade, and distribution of shark fins and imposes penalties and imprisonment if caught. Stewart encouraged SSHS students to show their support for the bill.

At the age of 22 in 2002, Stewart, who was an underwater photographer and freelance journalist at the time, realized that sharks were in danger of becoming extinct. He wanted to change the general perception people had of sharks and began filming sharks from a different perspective.

“I figured if I could make a movie, maybe I could give people my impression of sharks and let them see sharks through my eyes and see that they’re important, beautiful and amazing, and in need of protection,” Stewart said.

“What started out as a pretty underwater film about sharks with no people in it quickly turned into a crazy story of corruption, espionage, attempted murder and hospitalization. By the time I was done with Sharkwater, it took five years in 15 countries that nearly killed me about a half dozen times,” he added.

Sharks have been around for over 400 million years, Stewart said, predating dinosaurs by about 100 million years, surviving five major extinctions.

The shark population has dropped by 90 percent in the last 30 years, Stewart said, calling it an “astronomical” number.

“The reason why it’s happening is because people aren’t fighting for sharks. There are people fighting for pandas and elephants and whales,” Stewart said.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that a bill has been introduced in Guam. I think it could be a huge step for Guam. There’s a massive diving tourism industry all around the world. The Bahamas brings in over $80 million from shark tourism every year and there’s no reason why that can’t be happening in places like this,” he added.

Although Stewart noted that while the problem of shark finning might not be a colossal issue with Guam’s locals as it is in other parts of the world, the island could be a port for transshipping shark fins from Asia to the U.S. or Europe.

A single pound of shark fin, on average, costs about $200, Stewart said, and is a multibillion dollar industry a year.

“Anywhere that has a healthy shark population, you’re going to find people trying to exploit them,” Stewart said. “Because shark finning is prohibited in most countries around the world, it’s created a black market where there’s a lot of organized crime … and fins move through countries under the radar.”

Asked what message he wanted to give the local community, “The power is in their hands; if Guam wants to be a world leader to ban shark finning and send that message to the world, they can do it and it’s been shown time and time again that the power of individuals can absolutely change the world.”

Printed in the Marianas Variety on February 2, 2011

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