I’ve loved sharks since the first time I swam up close with one almost 20 years ago on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I love their sleek lines. I love their disposition. I love their strength. But, most of all, I love the feeling I get when I’m surrounded by these animals. It’s tough to explain—but virtually every person I know who has spent time with sharks understands this feeling.
I’ve been filming and photographing sharks world-wide for a living now. It's been more than 10 years and I’ve learned so much in that time. I’ve learned that sharks are not mindless killing machines that so many think them to be. Let’s be real: If humans were on the menu for sharks, no one would ever swim in the ocean.
Sharks are actually far more paranoid of us than we are of them. You’re lucky to see one these days. It’s extremely challenging to get close to sharks—they’re very wary of us. Underwater, they’re bullies, and don’t fight fair. They don’t fight anything that fights back. Sharks primarily eat sick and dying fish. They instill natural order and keep the food chain healthy by weeding out all the weak links in the fish lines beneath them. They keep our coral reefs strong. They are the ocean’s apex predator. With the ocean covering over 70 percent of our earth, this makes sharks one of the most important animals living on the planet.
Sharks have been seemingly invincible throughout history—they’ve survived on our planet for more than 450 million years, through five mass extinctions. But within our short lifetime, we have found a way to wipe out more than 90 percent of them from our oceans.
In 2006, my wife, Jen, and I set out to make our first shark film. We were so annoyed by the horrible programming that we watched for years on Discovery Channel’s "Shark Week." Never once did we see a program that portrayed sharks the way we knew them. So, we decided to make our own film and called it REQUIEM after the most infamous classification of sharks—the Requiem family.
We didn’t have much of anything to get started: no budget, no storyline. We had only a bunch of random footage of sharks from around the world, but we went for it anyway and the film was a success. It's played in more than 30 countries in film festivals, museums, and aquariums around the world. The message of the film is clear: sharks are important, are on the brink of extinction, and should be respected, not feared.
We teamed up with WildAid as our conservation partner and before we knew it, we were immersed in the shark conservation world. Fast-forward a handful of years to 2010 and my home state of Hawaii was in the spotlight as Senator Clayton Hee introduced a bill to the Hawaii Legislature that would prohibit the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins in the State of Hawaii: Senate Bill 2169.
Shark finning is the heinous practice of cutting off a shark's fins and throwing the rest of the body back in the ocean—still alive. The fins are the currency used for shark fin soup, a delicacy in Asia historically only served to royalty. Back then, Hawaii was home to a large shark fin processor in Honolulu and many Chinese restaurants around the state still served shark fin soup.
Conservation groups I worked with said it was a dead end. We were told it would be near impossible to get a law of this nature passed, that it was simply too controversial and would be seen as stepping on the toes of the culturally significant practice in some nations. This didn’t stop the small group we worked with in Hawaii—led by Senator Hee and Stefanie Brendl—to make it happen. After some opposition in the House, Representatives came to an agreement and Governor Lingle signed the Bill into law in May 2010—only months after it was proposed.
The success of SB2169 created a wave throughout the Pacific, as some other island nations (American Samoa, Marshall Islands, Kosrae, CNMI, Guam) also picked up similar legislation. It then moved across the mainland United States, where multiple states have passed new laws—including key states such as California and New York, where the bill is currently waiting for Andrew Cuomo's signature. The Hawaii bill created a movement as shark conservation groups have sprouted up everywhere—and people all over the world have lent their support to the species.
But much of this work in individual U.S. states is now in jeopardy. In January 2011, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act (SCA) into law. This Act is a good thing for sharks—it prohibits the landing of shark’s fins that are not attached to the body and the transshipment of fins in all federal waters. But the federal government has the power to override the current state laws. Most of the state laws are much stronger than the laws written under the SCA. So, while the SCA is a good thing overall, the provisions within it would preempt and overturn the laws in the various states that have so far implemented their own shark fin bans.
What we need people to do today is simple. It’s important that we commend the federal government on the SCA, but we need to ask them to respect the states that voted to have stricter anti-finning laws.
Sharks aren't warm and fuzzy. But for the sake of a better future, we must fight to protect the sea, despite our fears.