The Shark Con

On February 24, 2010, crowds of fishermen, resort owners, boat captains, and fish packers from all across the U.S. gathered in Washington, D.C., to voice their opposition to closure of fisheries and support for a new bill in Congress that will erase some of the errors of the 2007, the Magnuson-Stevens Conservation Management Act.

Outdoor sportsmen often complain that the mainstream media don't give their views a fair shake, and it's true. So, a new documentary film, "The Shark Con," that captures the mood of that crowd, should be of interest to fishermen, as well as raising the hackles of others.

"The Shark Con" is a feature-length documentary directed by Rusty Armstrong about sharks and what we do with them for food and fun — fish for them or not, dive to watch them, and/or protect them.

The documentary began as Armstrong and Eli Martinez, Editor of Shark Diver magazine, visited shark diving tourism hotspots to shoot a film "Summer of The Sharks."

Armstrong says that he heard so many conflicting stories about sharks, especially their numbers and how endangered they are, that he wanted to know what really was the situation, and so he decided to make a movie about it.

A commonly-heard rallying cry from some eco-activists is that "100 million sharks a year are killed by fishing and finning." If you think about it, that's lot of sharks, especially year after year!

A Google search of "How many sharks are killed every year" comes up with 1,310,000 hits. A number of those cite the 100 million number. Not everyone, including Armstrong, is buying those numbers.

This film boldly asks the question, are sharks really overfished or is this a trumped up exaggeration designed to be used for fund-raising by some groups who need crises to keep donations coming in?"

In the quest to understand this question we meet a diverse cast of characters. There's Eugene LaPointe, former Secretary General of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a brave National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologist, shark divers and several shark fishermen, including the colorful, "Captain Bill."

The save the shark advocates, ironically, decline to appear.

What we learn is that the United Nations says about 10 million sharks are killed every year. CITES now lists only three shark species — basking, whale, and great white — as endangered. There is a huge debate about shark numbers, and this in turn has a direct relationship to a 1997 ruling by the NMFS about reducing the annual quota on sharks.

National Geographic admits that the 100 million figure may be too high, but it subscribes to the science that says that 38 million sharks are killed every year for their fins for shark fin soup. Other sources use the figure 73 million sharks annually.

What emerges is that we really don't know how many sharks are caught and killed every year. The question then arises, how can you set limits and restrictions if you don't know how many there are and how many are being harvested?

"Shark Con," is really three films in one. It explores shark population dynamics and asks if the world's shark population is really declining from fishing and finning. It draws us into the world of eco-politics and shows that at least some environmental organizations appear to need to have crises to exist, and sharks seem to be one of those species that have an emotional hook. And, it also leads us into the world of diving with sharks as a tourist business, which could be a movie by itself.

We learn that one problem with getting a clear picture of how many sharks there are is that the shark fishing industry in Southeast Asia, where shark fishing is largely centered, is secretive. Also, with long line fishing for tuna, where sharks are a by-catch, they often are just thrown back, so counting becomes a problem as many sharks caught and killed are simply thrown away.

Therefore, ever getting good shark fishing stats will not be easy, and without reliable baseline data or annual catch numbers, regulations can't be easily set.

And even if you can get population and harvest stats, there will be the question of just how does heavy shark fishing in one area effect other areas of the world?

"Shark Con" has some great underwater footage of sharks, and that, plus the controversies unearthed, is going to draw folks; some supportive, others not so.

This film does not answer many questions about sharks, and it could have used a few more scientists, but it surely raises some real issues about the research on sharks and how current management standards are set.

Hopefully "The Shark Con" will inspire the researchers and regulatory agencies to get the stats right so agencies that set limits can decide just how many sharks can be harvested to keep up a sustainable population.

If Internet hits are any indication, "The Shark Con" already has some Web sites buzzing. Some of the comments on the trailer that appear on Current.com, and other Web sites, are not exactly friendly.

There is a lack of good mainstream films about issues that hunters and fishermen feel strongly about. This hurts outdoor sportsmen in elections, legal actions, and society in general. I hope that this documentary inspires more outdoor sportsmen to support mainstream documentaries about issues they feel strongly about.

"The Shark Con," ultimately is about both sharks that spend their lives in the water, and those that spend most of their lives on land.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.