Along with people in Canada and around the world, I am heartbroken with the loss of Rob Stewart.
There was no one like Rob and the loss is profound. Those of us who were privileged to know him will never forget his passion and his magnetism. Rob drew you in. He was one of the truest and most influential advocates for the oceans and for the Earth.
Most people have heard of Rob because of Sharkwater, his epic documentary that shone a spotlight on shark finning and the global decline of sharks. Not exactly a “sexy” topic. And how is it relevant again? But Rob broke it down, and drew us in.
Shark finning is the callous practice of slicing off fins and tails of sharks — often while they’re still alive — to sell. Fins and tails are much more lucrative than shark meat, and thus make more economic sense to stockpile onboard. As a result, the stumpy bodies of sharks are usually dumped overboard at sea, sometimes still alive and attempting to swim as they spiral down towards the bottom of the ocean.
More than 90 per cent of sharks are now gone, mostly due to overfishing. And this has upset the ocean’s delicate balance. Reefs with fewer sharks, we now know, are less healthy overall. These top predators help shape the food web, and their decline causes a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem and beyond, with possible implications extending even to climate.
But what struck me most about Sharkwater was its beauty. How could a film about something as grisly as shark finning and as depressing as the collapse of the oceans be beautiful? How could it be something the public would actually want to see? And yet I witnessed, over and over, how people who had never swum in the ocean before or who couldn’t have cared less about fish suddenly felt called to action, suddenly felt compelled, as if the cause were now impossible to ignore, to do something. And many of them did — supporting ocean initiatives, increasing seafood awareness, showing Sharkwater in classrooms. Some even formed their own NGOs.
Sharkwater contributed to mounting international public pressure to ban shark finning and protect sharks, resulting in changes to policy and law in numerous countries and on the international scale, as well as in municipalities across Ontario, Rob’s home province.
While Sharkwater will likely be what Rob is remembered for, I was even more impressed with his next film, Revolution. Rob realized that in order to address the oceans and ultimately sharks, we had to address what’s upstream: us. He understood that change had to come from a fundamental understanding of our place and potential in the world, and of our interconnectedness and interdependence on all living things.
And Rob knew that true understanding must happen with the heart.
Ten years after its release, people still remember Sharkwater. They still talk about it with energy and emotion. And this is because Rob did something most environmental films — and dare I say, the environmental movement — fail to do: inspire us. He reminded us why we are privileged to live here on Earth. He showed us that the world is still a breathtaking and mysterious place that deserves to exist. In short, he did what stats and data cannot: he showed us the beauty. He had this uncanny ability to see it where others might not — in sharks, in our depleted world, in us… and then, to share it.
The last time I communicated with Rob was through email in December. I’d reached out to him as I sometimes did just to check in and see what he was up to — there was always something cooking. But the purpose of my last email was really because I was disheartened. I wanted to know how he kept going, kept being hopeful. After all, the oceans were still a mess, the world was still getting hotter and now things had just gotten a whole lot more complicated with the recent U.S. election. To put it simply: I was down.
As he always did, with whomever he met, Rob drew me back in. He explained why we had to focus on the world we want rather than the battles we fight, because that is what will bring us together, instead of dividing us. Once again he pointed to the beauty in the world and the excitement in our purpose. And of course, he shared his latest, ambitious projects.
From the last line of the last email he ever wrote me: “Don’t feel disillusioned! The challenge is calling the best in us.”
May this be a call to all of us who are still privileged to live in this world: Let’s see Earth’s beauty and give back to it, a privilege Rob never took for granted.
Rob forged the lead. Let’s live up to his enormous spirit.