THE BLOG
02/12/2014 07:15 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

'Extinction Soup': An Interview With Documentary Filmmaker Philip Waller & Executive Producer Stefanie Brendl

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The ocean is our planet's life support system. Covering 72 percent of the earth and supplying half it's oxygen. It is home to one the greatest diversity of species and ecosystems in the world. Of those species are the ocean's top predators, the sharks, who have been around for over hundreds of millions of years. There are currently over 400 shark species in the ocean that are in a rapid decline all around the world, due to overfishing, illegal fishing and shark finning.

According to the NRDC, every year fins from tens of millions of sharks are used for shark fin soup, a delicacy in many Eastern cultures. Sharks are an essential key component to our oceans; they maintain the balance of the marine life in our oceans. Research shows that the depletion of massive shark populations will have cascading effects throughout the oceans' ecosystems. Those sharks need your help.

Bringing this issue to light is Extinction Soup, a documentary film that exposes the mass slaughter of sharks for their fins and the movement to stop it.

Extinction Soup initially follows Philip Waller as he set out to tell a story of his legend, Jimmy Hall. Only to realize there was a larger issue at play. Waller found himself consumed with exposing to the world an environmental catastrophe in the making -- the extinction of the oceans' shark population through the mass slaughter of these magnificent animals for their fins. Waller began documenting the efforts of conservationist Stefanie Brendl as she fights to educate lawmakers and help pass groundbreaking legislation that will curb the consumption of shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in many Eastern cultures, and the impetus behind 70 million sharks being killed per year.

Extinction Soup - Trailer from Sidney Sherman on Vimeo.

I had a chance to sit down with Philip Waller, the filmmaker of Extinction Soup and the film's Executive producer, Stefanie Brendl to talk about this film and the issue of shark finning.

What motivated you to want to make Extinction Soup? What do you hope will be its impact on the practice of finning and for shark conservation overall?

Phil: Once I was aware of the atrocities of shark finning and what was going on with the rising number of people that were eating shark fin soup, I knew this film had to be made. More than anything, I truly hope the impact of the film will open peoples eyes to the affects of eating shark fin soup or at least getting people to help aid in the effort to stop the finning of sharks worldwide. The ocean needs sharks to survive and people need to know that.

Stef: The global overfishing of sharks is an extremely urgent issue. I felt that more needed to be done to give this issue the exposure it needed. I also wanted to bring light to the fact that there is a battle going on and that people are working on protecting sharks, but that it is not being supported in the massive way it should be supported. And its not because people don't want to help, it is because it is not emphasized in the media as much as it should be. A shark attack still gets more airtime and headlines than the killing of millions of sharks.

It was obvious, through the activism work I have been involved with in the recent years that the burden of fighting for this issue lies on a very limited bunch of non-profit groups and individuals. Considering how detrimental and urgent this issue is campaigns by a few groups are just not enough to put a stop to this disastrous practice. It has to rise to the consciousness of the general population. And what better way then to use film to bring attention to a cause.

I hope it will not only impact the practice of finning, but also help the efforts to slow down or stop the trade of fins in many States and countries. There are many ongoing campaigns that need more support. If an overwhelming majority wants the practice, the trade and the product stopped, then it can happen.

The next issue that affects shark conservation overall, is the fact that most people are terrified of sharks and that little is done in the mainstream media to change that image. People need to realize that the information they are receiving from mass media about sharks is often false, sensationalistic and obscured, all in the name of ratings. People won't protect sharks if they only see them as monsters. Even if the majority of the population will never really like sharks, I hope that they will understand that they are an important part of our global health. Overall, I hope this film will help push the issue to a tipping point, where it is a known fact by everyone and seen as an outrage, such as the killing of elephants for ivory.

Do you believe that there's a general understanding or a lack of understanding of the current threat finning poses to shark populations? Shark finning has gained some level of awareness in the last several years -- Extinction Soup would certainly help raise that considerably.

Phil: It never ceases to amaze me how few people are aware of what is going on with the shark fin trade and the depletion it's causing global shark populations. However, more and more people seem to be catching on and hopefully this film will speed up that process. Sharks are astonishing creatures and I hope, with every fiber of my being, that this film helps bring awareness to this tragedy.

Stef: Within the conservation community the awareness has certainly grown and shark finning and fishing is seen as one of the top concerns within the spectrum of Ocean conservation issues. But the general population is mostly still unaware.

Commercial fisheries councils have been downplaying the impact of shark finning, fully knowing that it is unsustainable. That's because they are in business to fish as much as possible, unhindered by restrictions that might cut down on profits. Even the federal government authorities, such as NOAA have tried to hinder the recent progress made by states that have banned the trade of fins.

The battle to save sharks has been dealt with mostly within the NGO world and by dedicated activists. Fisheries' issues often don't reach the masses since they seem to be invisible problems that are dealt with through tedious and boring rule implementations. I think generally people feel the shark issue doesn't affect them, even once they learn about it, and for those that are concerned it can be intimidating to get involved as it so often seems that marine conservation issues are reserved for the expert, to be discussed during high-level meetings and conventions.
Moreover, it is not easily accessed on the grassroots level. I wanted to show that it is possible and that all of us should get involved. Add to that the fact that sharks are not as easy to love and it is hard to make people realize how important the conservation of sharks really is.

The trailer shows the tragic death suffered by sharks which have had their fins removed. For you, what was most poignant moment? What were your thoughts seeing them that way?

Phil: When I saw a shark being finned for the first time it was heart wrenching to watch. Especially once it was thrown back into the ocean with no fins, left to suffer a horrific death. I remember thinking to myself that if that were done to a cat or a dog, or even a cow or pig, where their legs were cut off and they were left to die on the side of the road people would be outraged. That's basically what's happening to sharks by the thousands on a daily basis.

Stef: These images have been part of my life and work for so many years that I am not shocked anymore. When I reflect on it, I feel disgust for how humans treat animals and how greed overrides any common sense. It can be overwhelming to think about the sheer numbers and the brutality, so I try to concentrate on the solutions and on how to take action. I do get emotional when I am in the water with them and think about how one of the animals I am swimming with could be caught and butchered for its fins. It makes it very real for me.

What is the hardest preconceived notion to overcome for the sharks?

Phil: The hardest preconceived notion to overcome with sharks is simply the notion that they are out to eat us. Humans are actually a horrible meal for sharks. We have so many bones that the energy it takes to digest a human far outweighs the energy they get from our meat, which explains why there are so few attacks. If we were on their menu, hundreds if not thousands of humans would be eaten every day. When in reality there has never been a year where more than 15 people have died from shark attacks. Almost everything kills more humans a year than sharks do. Car accidents, hippos, lightning; even falling coconuts kill more people every year than sharks do.

Stef: On the fisheries side of things people keep saying that there are too many sharks and that fishing sharks can be sustainable. Even when you ignore the data that shows that we are driving them to fast extinction, there is the fact that there is NOT ONE example where humans have been able to hunt a wild animal sustainably. It can't be done, because wild animals, especially predators, evolved to be in balance with a certain number of other animals. Bring in the super predator -- Homo sapiens -- and things quickly go awry. And then there is the obvious villain/ bloodthirsty monster image that we have produced over many years of shark horror films and sensationalistic news media coverage. Sharks are not hungry for humans. Sharks do not track humans for food. If they did we would have hundreds of attacks every single day. Sharks are not man-eaters.

The average person might not ever eat shark fin soup and so see this as 'not their problem.' How does Extinction Soup engage them, get them involved? How can they help?

Phil: The demise of sharks will impact everyone. Even if a person never eats shark fin soup, most people eat fish. And because there is so little tuna left due to over fishing, many fish that people eat that are mysteriously labeled with names such as rock salmon or white fish is actually shark. People need to know that shark meat is full of mercury, a heavy metal that can have dire consequences for anyone that ingests too much of it. This is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and growing children. Additionally, we all have to worry about the destruction of our ocean ecosystem. Without sharks we won't have healthy oceans, so the depletion of fish concerns us all.

Stef: Just because I don't wear a fur coat, buy ivory or catch dolphins for entertainment doesn't mean it isn't my problem either. We are all responsible for letting these practices continue. As long as we allow the trade and the practice, we are at fault. All of us! Sharks are caught all over the world, not just where fins are consumed. In Europe they are caught for meat. In the U.S. many cosmetics and supplements contain shark liver oil or cartilage.

Our film touches on these subjects to bring awareness of these facts, and it also shows by example how a small piece of legislation in the state of Hawaii changed the way the trade of fins is regulated and how a few people were able to make a difference. Furthermore, we hope the film will feed directly into the work of Shark Allies and other NGOs that have ongoing campaigns. The website will offer guidance on how to get involved and help no matter how large or small your level of engagement and willingness may be.

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When you see the endless shark fins laying out for drying in Extinction Soup - it's overwhelming! Describe what went through you mind? What do hope a viewer of Extinction Soup will takeaway from that image?

Phil: I honestly don't think that 99 percent of people understand just how many sharks are killed everyday. In just one boat trip, some commercial longliners can come back with over 6000 fins, and that's just one boat from one trip. But once people see this film, I believe their eyes will be opened to the reality of what's happening all around the world to sharks. And once their eyes are opened to this, I believe people will want to take a stand and hopefully find a way to put an end to fining and the shark fin trade for good.

Stef: These images are shocking, but bring to light the reality. They are not isolated or extreme cases of stockpiling. This happens every day in hundreds of harbors and processing plants. When I first saw the images years ago I felt overwhelmed as well, and shocked and disgusted, but not just for one particular nationality, but for myself as well -- for the fact that we stand by and do nothing. But we see that every day when we see images of war. We briefly feel sadness and empathy and then its easy to go on with our day, happy in denial and believing it is someone else's' problem.

Hearing about a problem is one step, but images are a lot more impactful. And shocking images are important to bring home the reality of the situation. A personal experience would be even better, but that can't really happen in the case of the shark fin trade.

I am not sure what the key is to jog people from empathy to action, but I hope that the film will hit a nerve with people, that it will create a deeper impression that will stay with them and that will make them care enough when they are called to take action. It may still be up to key leaders and activists to create the campaigns and to offer ways to help, but the support by the masses will make a huge difference in how much power can be put behind a campaign. Even if this awareness can't be used to save sharks, it can be channeled into caring more for any and all Ocean issues. There are plenty to go around.

Some restaurants and restaurant owners in the U.S. have refused to remove shark fin soup from their menus when asked by shark conservation supporters. What advice would you give to help increase the number of eateries, which ban the sale of shark fin soup? What will it take to get shark off the menu?

Phil: I think it's about education in general. Once people are educated to what is really happening, I hope they will change their practices and will forego eating the soup and will also put pressure on the restaurants in their communities to stop serving shark fin soup.

Stef: That's a tough question because it depends so much on the city and the communities that live in the districts. Serving shark fin soup carries a certain status, so for a restaurant to stop serving it they have to be willing to lower their prestige status when compared to other restaurants. If all the restaurants agree to stop serving it at the same time, it would be easier, since none of them would have an advantage. Customers will buy other menu items when shark fin soup is not available, but if they can go to the restaurant next door and get it, they will.

It is important to engage the business community to approach restaurants and let them make a progressive statement that they will only support establishments that say no to shark fin soup. Truth be told -- many restaurant owners would rather not have to cook shark fin soup. It is not easy to prepare and it is not cheap. But as long as customers want it they will offer it.

Other than banning shark fin, what do you believe is the most critical effort in the changing of minds and habits? What's the most difficult part? How does Extinction Soup address this?

Phil: It's important that people understand what is happening to the sharks and that they share this information with their friends and family members so we can create change globally for the sake of the oceans. As Hawaiian Senator Clayton Hee says, "It's not just about saving sharks, it's about saving the ocean. And by saving the ocean we will be saving mankind."

Stef: The most critical effort to change minds and habits is that we start thinking about sustainability as having equal importance with profits, jobs and the economy. Too many times economic impact gets used as an argument to shut down an action to save the environment.

Even with shark fin trade bans, the opposition would argue in many U.S. states that stopping the fishing for sharks or the sale of soup would hurt jobs and the economy. How a wrecked ocean will impact the economy long term doesn't seem to stand up to the immediate paranoia of losing some cash income in the moment.

The most difficult part is getting people to understand that something has to change DESPITE the obstacles and difficulties. Just because it is hard and complicated and may require some sacrifices, doesn't mean we can use that as an excuse to do nothing.

Extinction Soup addresses this by showing that sometimes we can attack big issues by simply finding a way to make a start. Who knows what will follow?

The simple Hawaiian law that banned the trade of fins became a prototype that helped spark similar action around the world. It is by no means solving all the problems, but it is a start.

The silver bullet to stop the shark fin trade is to stop it at the consumption level. When there is no demand, the supply will stop. We all agree on that. But that is no reason to say that all other action is not worth doing.

Shark fin soup is eaten in many countries. A complete ban would require political action by decision makers in several key countries, none of them being particularly known for their environmental concern. So in the meantime, we have to attack this problem from many angles. Awareness campaigns have changed attitudes and consumption has gone down. Many island nations in the Pacific have banned the trade of fins or established shark sanctuaries. Many U.S. states have said no to shark fin soup in one way or another. None of these measures are the perfect solution, but if we bring more power behind the movement, collectively these actions can save many sharks.

People frequently ask me "what's the point in protecting sharks in such-and-such region when they still eat soup in China -- as long as someone pays high prices for fins, the fishing will continue illegally." That is true, but the point is that illegal fishing is harder, and making it illegal will at least cut down the sheer tonnage of sharks that are brought into a harbor. And we have to try our hardest to protect sharks where there still are some. We can't wait and hope that we can stop everyone from eating the soup.

And while we can't save them all, we should always look at what actions will help us make the biggest difference. If Extinction Soup can help in some way to empower the movement then we will have reached our goal with the film. How far the impact will go and in which ways it will help is a little hard to predict. I hope we will all be surprised by what it can affect.

Extinction Soup World Premiere will take place at the 11th Annual San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival, on Saturday, March 8, 2014. For more information about this festival and ticket options, click here.

After the screening, please be sure to join Director/Producer Philip Waller and Executive Producer Stefani Brendl for a Panel Discussion: Shark Sanctuaries and Ecotourism.

To learn more about Extinction Soup, click here. Be sure to also follow them on Twitter and like them on Facebook for the latest updates on the film.