Friday, February 11, 2011

Filmmaker Q&A: Shawn Heinrichs, "Manta Ray of Hope"

Huge and graceful, manta rays capture the hearts and imaginations of those who see, or are lucky enough to swim with them. But a disturbing trend is threatening their populations. Filmmaker Shawn Heinrichs documents the plight of these majestic creatures in “Manta Ray of Hope.” The film follows researchers on a heart-wrenching journey as they study manta and mobula rays and their subsequent overfishing. Though ray fishing has only recently emerged it may irreparably damage manta and mobula ray populations before the world takes notice.

To see more images and preview the film visit “Manta Ray of Hope” will be included in the Sharks & Vanishing Marine Life program of the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, taking place at 1pm on Saturday, March 12. This program is a Festival favorite and sure to sell out – click here to purchase your tickets today.
For the first time, all San Francisco Ocean Film Festival programs will include complimentary admission to Aquarium of the Bay. Located next door to Theatre 39, the Aquarium provides the opportunity to continue your underwater exploration, after the last film credits have rolled. View the full Festival lineup at:

--Veronica DePaolis

What is your overall summary for the film?
“Manta Ray of Hope” takes the viewer on a breathtaking journey to some of the most remote and exotic places on earth, to personally experience the magnificence of these rays. Through the eyes of naturalists and researchers, the people who know these animals best, we begin to unravel the mysteries of the manta. We experience their joy of new discoveries and also their pain, watching mantas they know fished in front of their very eyes. We then go deep under cover, from the remote fishing villages to the bustling cities to better understand and expose the trade that is threatening their very future. And we challenge the medicinal health ‘claims’ that are driving this destructive trade. Finally, as a ray of hope, we meet those who are making a difference, from scientists, to politicians, to local businessmen, and learn how we all can make a difference for these magical creatures too.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
While conducting a decade long investigation into the global shark fin trade we began to notice another heart-wrenching trend in fish markets around the world - manta and mobula rays being sold for their meat and gill-rakers. In fact, in just one small fishing port in Indonesia, we documented up to a dozen mantas and mobulas lined up in the street. Repeat visits to this market revealed the same grizzly scene, time and time again.

Similarly, in a fishing port in Sri Lanka, we counted 23 dead mobula rays in one morning, and according to the fishermen, mobula rays were landed here every day. We had never seen so many mobula rays in one place – either dead or alive. Further investigation led us to the traders where we discovered a row of sacks, each containing gill-rakers from about 100 manta and mobula rays. On the roof, we were shown the gill-rakers from a recent catch of hundreds of mobulas being dried prior to export.

We also learned that often manta and mobula cartilage is used as filler in shark fin soup. We had to know what was driving fishermen to target mantas and mobulas. Our research and discussions with marine scientists and traders revealed that the gill-rakers were increasingly being used in Chinese medicine as a health tonic, driven by a belief that gill-rakers cool the blood. Demand for gill rakers now reached across oceans, giving rise to unsustainable manta ray fisheries off the coasts of Mexico and the Philippines. As these manta populations tumbled, the governments of Mexico and the Philippines that had once made it illegal to capture and kill mantas, in the face of fisheries pressure, lifted the bans. Through our research, we truly believe that demand for manta and mobula gill-rakers is rapidly approaching a critical inflection point. Whereas the shark fin trade has sadly become deeply entrenched, both culturally and economically, there may be time to intercept and head-off the gill-raker trade before it becomes completely entrenched. With this realization, we have set out to tell this story in the hopes of driving real change before it is too late.
What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
The general public, and even most ocean enthusiasts, are largely unaware of the gill-raker trade and the tragic toll it is taking on manta and mobula populations throughout the oceans. This could be due to global attention now focusing on other species such as cod, tuna, and sharks – although shark finning and manta fishing tend to be closely interconnected. While addressing overfishing of these species is extremely important, if the manta/mobula fisheries are not addressed with urgency, these charismatic animals will be gone before the world takes notice.

The short film presented is a prelude to the full documentary that is currently under development. Given the lack of awareness for the issue, garnering the necessary support to advance the project is an ongoing struggle. In addition, the story takes place in remote corners of the planet, often way off the beaten path in logistically challenging locations. Getting to these areas and gaining access to the people and shooting the footage is always a serious obstacle.

What do you want to impart on your film’s viewers?
In partnership with WildAid and the Silver Crest Foundation we are creating a documentary connected directly to ‘demand-side’ awareness and educational campaigns.

This film is geared for audiences around the world – for everyone truly can make an impact on the future of mantas and mobulas. And there are clear ways both western and eastern consumers can get involved. Ultimately the future of manta and mobula populations rests in the hands of consumers.

Globally, mantas attract millions of dollars in eco-tourism and are among the top experiences divers are seeking. Eco-tourism can generate the income and foster the attention necessary to increase public awareness of the plight of mantas and influence governments to protect them. For example, mantas contribute an estimated $8.1 million to the Maldives and $2.5 million to Hawaii annually through manta ray eco-tourism. And in both areas, mantas are protected. And if there is no consumer demand for manta and mobula products there will be no more fishing of these rays.

Through education and awareness we also hope to limit demand for gill-rakers, and increase consumer intelligence about the use of manta and ray byproducts (meat, cartilage, skin). If we can help consumers make the connection between the gill-rakers and these amazing creatures; if they understand the global impact gill-raker consumption is having on manta and mobula populations; and if they decide enough-is-enough then perhaps there is truly a ray of hope for future of manta and mobula rays.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
Manta and mobula rays are some of the most graceful and elegant creatures in the ocean. Interacting with these amazing beings during the filming of the underwater segments was truly one of the most incredible and moving experiences of our lives.

Who (or what) is your inspiration?
As it relates to this project, the mantas themselves are our greatest inspiration. Humans have hunted and exploited them, yet even in the face of these insults they welcome us into their world and grace us with their presence. The intimate encounters we share with these creatures are truly a gift from beyond.
How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
I was born in Durban South Africa and from a very young age, I have shown a passion for adventure and nature. As a child I traveled with my father to remote villages in southern Africa, explored South Africa's Drakenberg Mountains and the Wild Coast, and spent countless hours playing on the beaches. My passion for the oceans ultimately led me to become a cinematographer, scuba diver, and marine conservationist.
Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival? The San Francisco Ocean Film Festival is a celebration of the Oceans with a true commitment to inspiring its conservation. I have participated in the festival in prior years and have always been impressed by the quality of films, the passion of the filmmakers, and the commitment of the organizers.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
The most memorable moments were also the hardest moments. Witnessing the manta and mobula rays dragged ashore, lined up in mass and chopped up by machete are images that will never leave our minds. Our hope is that these images will become a thing of the past.

If there is any way this film, or the larger documentary can make a real difference in the conservation of manta and mobula rays then it was all worth it. To accomplish this goal will require the support and collaboration of many who care.

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