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Santa Barbara Film Review: ‘Sharkwater Extinction’

Rob Stewart exposes a global finning industry that threatens to make sharks extinct in this gorgeous activist documentary.

Sharkwater Extinction” isn’t just a follow-up to 2006’s “Sharkwater”; it’s another in a long line of well-intentioned advocacy docs that end with a website address. The difference, however, is that Rob Stewart’s film also concludes with the Canadian writer-director’s own 2017 demise at the age of 37 from hypoxia, which lends it a gravity — and urgency — that few like-minded efforts can claim. A testament to its maker’s staunch belief in the cause of shark preservation, it’s a plea for transparency and conservation whose gorgeous 4K cinematography should make it an enticing proposition for nonfiction cinephiles and activists alike.

Stewart’s fate isn’t revealed at the outset of “Sharkwater Extinction;” rather, it’s foreshadowed by ominous colleague comments as well as Stewart’s own admission that, while his parents worry about his safety, his success at surviving brushes with death has only amplified his confidence. There’s a slight unseemliness to the film’s treatment of Stewart’s passing as something of a dramatic bombshell. Yet by and large, that decision hammers home the man’s wholehearted commitment to preventing sharks from disappearing from our oceans — a calamity that isn’t far off according to Stewart, who claims that 100 million sharks are killed each year, and that 99% of the global shark population has been eradicated in the past three decades.

The apparent reason for this systematic slaughter is, first and foremost, Asian nations’ love of shark fin soup, which compels hunters to nab sharks, cut off their fins, and then throw their mutilated carcasses back into the water, where they invariably perish. Stewart details this and other capture-and-kill practices in Costa Rica, Panama, Africa, and Los Angeles, where he films sharks caught in large drift gill nets. Though many nations have adopted stricter laws in the wake of his original “Sharkwater,” loopholes remain, such that in Cabo Verde, Africa, shark finning itself is illegal, but importing fins via shipping boat containers is perfectly acceptable. This leads, invariably, to large-scale “underground” operations of murder and transportation that Stewart routinely documents via stark, covert snapshots.

Whereas Louie Psihoyos’ similar “The Cove” benefited from people’s inherent fondness for dolphins, Stewart recognizes that his mission involves changing attitudes about sharks themselves. He asserts that, far from the scary human-eating monsters of “Jaws” and “The Shallows,” sharks are “beautiful and amazing and magnificent and important” apex predators vital to our planetary ecosystem. While he may go a bit far in positing hammerheads and blue sharks as cute and cuddly, footage of him hugging, petting, and frolicking with them does help bolster his contention. Moreover, even if one doesn’t completely buy such a portrait, the film ably maintains that they’re being exterminated for no appreciable reason. To wit, he employs a marine biologist to test fish, pet food and over-the-counter cosmetics, which reveal that shark DNA is now present, for unknown reasons, in a variety of consumer products.

A gregarious and well-spoken young man who put his life on the line for the aquatic animals he adored, Stewart comes across as dedicated, fearless, and quietly optimistic that his work as a filmmaker — and speaker, and protestor — will help educate the public and, in turn, lead to change. Credited as director and writer despite his untimely fate, his film’s globetrotting structure sometimes leaves it feeling a bit scattershot, with too little time spent on any one element of his indictment. Nonetheless, with stunning cinematography of undersea landscapes inhabited by ferocious and fascinating-looking creatures, “Sharkwater Extinction” forwards its argument with an aesthetic polish that only amplifies its sound reasoning.

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