A Canadian Crusader Fights for the Oceans

06/12/2013 12:09 EDT | Updated 08/12/2013 05:12 EDT
Getty Images

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Rob Stewart's whole life changed the day he found the "curtain of death."

In 1999, Stewart was 22 and enjoying a carefree existence as an underwater photographer and filmmaker. "I was selfish before. I was just travelling, photographing animals, thinking I had the best job in the world," he told us.

Then, while diving in a protected area off the Galapagos Islands, Stewart discovered hundreds of dead sharks hanging off one single fishing line he said was long enough to reach from earth to space.

Long-line fishing rigs -- called "curtains of death" by conservationists -- can stretch up to 160 kilometres with hundreds of baited hooks hanging off them.

Rage at the wholesale slaughter of an endangered species -- his favourite species -- catapulted Stewart from indifference to a life of activism. He launched a global crusade to save sharks from extinction, culminating in the 2006 release of his documentary film, Sharkwater.

But as Stewart toured the world with his film, raising awareness about the threat to sharks, he was hit with a second life-changing epiphany.

During a Q&A session with a group of students before a screening in Hong Kong, one student rose and said, "Why ask me to stop eating shark fin soup if all the fish are going to be gone by 2048 anyways?"

The question made Stewart once again re-evaluate the direction of his life. What was the point of working to save one ocean species when all of them were in danger? According to a 2006 Dalhousie University study, problems like overfishing will lead to the collapse of most fish species in the ocean by 2048. With humanity's dependence on ocean resources, Stewart realized that a threat to marine life is a threat to us all.

"It was pretty clear to me it's not just sharks we need to save, it's us. What are we going to do without oceans?"

And thus Revolution was born -- Stewart's latest film documents Stewart's four-year journey through 15 countries revealing the threats to global ecosystems all species -- humans included -- depend on for survival.

Stewart described to us some of the ecological disasters happening to the world's oceans right now.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- plastic trash dumped in the sea that ocean currents have washed together into one floating mass -- is believed to be anywhere from 700,000 to more than 15-million square kilometres in size. A study last fall found the Arctic seabed is also turning into a garbage dump.

Man-made pollutants flowing out of rivers are creating growing dead zones where the water has been starved of most its oxygen, making these areas uninhabitable by marine life. A dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of the Mississippi, is approximately 15,000 square kilometres in size.

As oceans absorb more man-made carbon dioxide from the air, the chemical reaction causes sea water to become increasingly acidic. Scientists are studying the potential impact on sea life.

Overfishing has caused the collapse of fish populations around the world, which has already had a taste of what happens when the ocean's bounty ceases to be bountiful.

Communities in Newfoundland have been devastated by the collapse of the cod fisheries. British Columbia salmon fisheries have been in crisis mode for several years. Some of the first pirates operating off the coast of Somalia were actually Somali fishermen who lost their livelihoods after foreign overfishing and dumping of toxic waste devastated Somalia's fish stocks.

In Revolution, Stewart interviews children who are angry that no one is taking a leading role to save our oceans, and protect their futures.

Ironically, as Revolution debuted in Canadian theatres in late April, the Government of Canada quietly reduced the environmental oversight on permits for dumping waste--like dredged materials, fishery waste and even derelict ships and aircraft--into the sea. Earlier this year the government stripped federal environmental protection from more than two million lakes and rivers.

There are some hopeful signs. Three years after their 2006 study, the same Dalhousie researchers who predicted the 2048 collapse of most fish species, found that conservation efforts to curb overfishing in the US, Iceland and New Zealandwere helping fish stocks rebound.

But we can't just leave the job of saving our oceans to the next generation. Like Stewart and the children, the adult generation needs to wake up.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit