An Alliance Atlantis release (in Canada) of a Sharkwater Prods. presentation of a Diatribe production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced, directed, written by Rob Stewart. Executive producers, Brian Stewart, Sandra Campbell, Alexandra Stewart.
In his article Infodiction, Malik Robinson talks about orienting response (OR). He says, “The OR is a survival mechanism, shared by all mammals, that alerts us to unusual visual and aural information. Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov was the first to explain how it worked…Ancient behaviors tend to be rigid and indiscriminate, and the OR is no exception. This leaves it ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous content programmers. How do they do it? TV’s formal devices—jump cuts, zoom-ins and -outs, bizarre angles, sudden pans, shaky handhelds—trigger the OR each time they appear, drawing attention to the screen while dissipating focus. This puts viewers into a receptive state. Our attention is sharp but our focus is soft, spread out like a net to catch the next bit of information. By regularly triggering the OR, programmers put us into a hypnotic trance.”
This sums up our collective fear, efficiently documented thousands of times on Shark Week or any number of B movies: we are the stalked prey, the cute sea lion frolicking helplessly in the water and the shark is, as venture capitalist Mitchell Kertzman put it when likening Microsoft to a great white, “a killing machine without soul or conscience that only knows its own hunger and appetites.” While it’s perhaps true that the shark doesn’t consider with conscience what it first attempts to sustain itself with, but rather with an exploratory bite while also employing its ampullae of Lorenzini- special electroreceptors in the head of the shark which helps it, well, as the name suggests, sense electric fields- it could also be stated that it can smell your cheap cologne and sense your fake gold bracelet from miles away and probably doesn’t want any part of you.
Truth is, the paralyzing propaganda and ignorant supposition surrounding sharks, particularly in the U.S. which has the highest sharkbite percentage globally, probably stems from the Jersey Shore in 1916, which was undergoing a massive heatwave at the time, where sharks munched down on several beachgoers in July of that year. Beaches all along the eastern seaboard were packed that summer due to the heatwave and the Polio epidemic. So there it is: lack of air conditioning and adequate vaccines are what prompted political cartoonists to start parodying German U-boats as sharks, forever imprinting in our reptile minds the negative connotation of the first invertebrate to develop jaws.
“The one animal we fear the most is the one we can’t live without.”
Sharks are arguably the oldest species of animal on the planet and to talk about the history of life evolving on earth involves talk about sharks. More than 400 million years ago with little oxygen in the atmosphere and single-celled organisms ruling the seas, the rise of algae and planktonic animals allowed invertebrates like squid and mollusks to flourish, thus necessitating larger predatory animals to bring the food chain into balance. Enter the shark. Sharks range in size from the 17cm Dwarf Lanternshark to the 18m Whale shark. 0f the 400 odd varieties only a handful are apex predators, yet it has remained the job of all of the superorder Selachimorpha to keep the seals and fish and squid populations from growing too large and overindulging in the lower food chain, especially carbon dioxide sucking planktons which produce oxygen and maintain a balanced climate, both above and below the surface of the oceans, providing hope for the future survival of land-based mammals entering the 21st century and beyond.
Enter Sharkwater, a 2007 documentary from underwater photographer Rob Stewart, who opens with “The one animal we fear the most is the one we can’t live without.” Stewart is like a big kid who has always loved the ocean and been drawn to rather than repelled from what are seen as its most dangerous denizens. He states that sharks are responsible for shaping the evolution of new species, “giving rise to schooling behavior, camouflage, speed, size and communication…by eliminating species that are easy prey and giving rise to new ones.” The documentary begins with truly remarkable images, including one of the writer / director himself holding a large Caribbean reef shark and stroking it like a kitten, proving his thesis early on: sharks are now the prey rather than the predators of humans.
The 89 minute film featuring music from Nina Simone, Aphex Twin, Portishead quickly dives beneath the surface of the prey vs. predator debate and launches into a show and tell docu-drama style of story-telling with Stewart hopping aboard whatever Paul Watson is calling his freshly painted ramming vessel these days and heading off into the pristine waters of Cocos Island National Park near Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Despite being invited at the behest of the President of Costa Rica to help the reserve-protected animal Stewart, Watson and the crew find themselves in shark-infested waters, where the invertebrates are the least of their worries, as they run into longline shark poachers, Taiwanese mafia, and boatloads of corrupt police and court officials all attempting to ram them and their Sea Shepherd accompaniment out of the deep end. Add to that a few attempts at deportation, live ammunition, and some flesh-eating bacteria and still Thomas and his crew manage to somehow emerge with a better than average documentary on the state of the oceans’ most vulnerable predator.
Yet a pretty big question remains: Why exactly are sharks threatened? Where are the reported 100,000,000 killed each year going to?
Well, You’ve Eaten Shark Before…but you probably don’t know it.
Hákarl (Icelandic for “shark”) is fermented greenlandic shark, a tradition of Þorramatur, Iceland’s national food, most recently notable for appearing on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, in which he, as usual, tried the pungently ammonia-rich stuff, describing it as, “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. A good start but a more likely culprit might be…
Shark fin soup. Originally a Cantonese delicacy, this controversial cuisine has gained popularity in other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Singapore and can be found on some highend Japanese grocery store shelves. The finning process involves the removal of the fin with a metal blade, whereupon the animal, maimed and defenseless, is then released back into the water. The immobile shark soon dies from suffocation and/or predators. Truth be told, shark fins have very little flavor of their own and thus take on the flavor of whatever they are cooked with. If you find a can of it in an Asian store in your neighborhood rest assured it is most likely inauthentic, being constituted with a kind of mung bean vermicelli shaped to resemble shark fins and flavored with mushrooms and pork.
If you’ve been bumming on the beaches around Victoria, Australia and been on a pub crawl then you’ve definitely had shark. Called Flake it’s the white fish most regularly used in Australian fish and chips.
The most likely culprit in Japanese food is something called Surimi 擂り身, a mince meat most directly referencing “fodder fish”. The process of making surimi goes as follows: white fish meat is filleted (or alternatively an amalgamation of bits that are otherwise useless), rinsed and pulverized into a mushy, gelatinous paste, often including additives such as egg whites, salt, sorbitol, sugar, humectants, vegetable oil, and artificial flavoring, the end result of which often resembles a solidified mayonnaise. While the most popular white meat fish varies (Alaskan Pollock is big), shark is high on the list, due to its soft, flaky texture and low fat content. The most famous surimi product in the U.S. is artificial crab meat, which is most widely used in California rolls. In Japan, kamaboko (pink and white fish loaf seen in ramen) and chikuwa (a kind of fish cake often filled with processed cheese) are the most popular surimi snacks.
In my meanderings along the coasts of Asia and the U.S. searching for sustainable seafood I have been lucky enough to have only come across shark a few times, in both fin and other forms. While the risk of high toxicity levels remains an ever-increasing factor in our consumption of any seafood these days, it is especially important to take note that large predatory fish- specifically tuna, swordfish and shark- run the greatest potential for mercury-saturated meat and therefore should really only be eaten once or twice a month (Source: Robert Hueter- director of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research in Sarasota), if at all. The fact remains that if there is shark steak in front of you, the shark in question likely died more humanely than one caught via longline methods merely for its fins (wasting approximately 95% of the animal), which were cut off while the shark was still alive and then dumped back into the deep blue, left to sink to the bottom and suffocate then eaten by its peers. Gotta love humanity. It’s time to evolve beyond our current irrational fears and leave the OR to our behavioral scientists and their atavistic research. Tune out Shark Week and turn on to conscious consumerism. Note that any product you buy is in reality two products: the one you actually purchase and the replacement for that product. Therefore buy with the foreknowledge that you may be aiding the blind global demand for depleted fish stocks at any and all costs. That said, Eat Smart and Hearty Friends!
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a line of documentaries HESO Magazine will look at which revolve around potentially life-altering subjects. Many of these productions were funded independently and are still seeking wide release. There are many ways our readers can help promote positive movements: Visiting the website and donating a few dollars, educating yourself further on the subject, or simply telling friends and family members about alternative media and ideas. It’s simple. Don’t take my word for these things, but find out for yourself what’s going on in the world around you so you can make an informed decision about your own life and the lives of your family and community. Thanks.