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Rob Stewart is the director of the award-winning documentaries Sharkwater and Revolution.

The Internet was stunned this week at a viral headline: Selfies have killed more people this year than sharks. That's 12 and 8, respectively. What I hope gets through to those shocked readers: Sharks kill very few people. Yes, selfies are deadlier than sharks. But so are many things: Toasters kill almost 800 people a year. Elephants kill more than 100. Champagne corks reportedly claim an average of 24 lives a year.

Of the billions of incidences of swimming in oceans every year, just 60-100 people are bitten by sharks annually, with an average of only 5-10 fatalities.

The reality of shark attacks is that they're actually shark mistakes. Most "attacks" don't involve the removal of flesh, and almost none involve a shark eating a person. That's right: Sharks aren't interested in eating us. They make a mistake, and move on.

To truly understand sharks, you have to meet one for yourself. Not on a TV show or in an aquarium, but in the oceans – on their terms. Here, as scuba divers know, you'll understand a radically different animal than those portrayed in movies. The shark will scan you, detect your heartbeat, and most likely flee from you.

Unfortunately, our unfounded fear of sharks has blinded us to their decimation – something I first discovered as a 19-year-old photographer on an assignment, trying to photograph hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands. Instead of discovering sharks in all their majesty in the most protected marine reserve on Earth, I found a fishing line that could stretch from Earth to outer space, with thousands of baited hooks and hundreds of dead and dying sharks.

As one of the first vertebrate with jaws, sharks created a predatory force in every ocean, shaping life on this planet more than 400 million years ago – 150 million years before the dinosaurs. Through four mass extinctions, sharks endured when most life was eliminated. With more than 400 species of sharks – from the 12-centimetre dwarf lantern that creates its own light, to the 16-metre-long filter-feeding whale shark – they can be found in every ocean on Earth. Mostly, they inhabit the water that is closer to land, where life is most prolific – and where humans like to swim.

In an effort to bring this message to the world – real sharks aren't the deadly human-killers we were shown in Jaws – I set out to make Sharkwater, a film that I hoped would show sharks in a new, realistic light. Instead, I was thrust into the dark and dangerous shark-fin industry, resulting in pirate-boat rammings, attempted murder charges, espionage, corrupt governments, machine-gun fire and organized-crime rings.

Sharks were being aggressively hunted for their fins. Shark-fin soup is a Chinese delicacy so desirable that a single pound of shark fin can sell for more than $400 (U.S.), leading to the practice of finning: keeping only the fins and discarding the bodies, which wastes 95 per cent of the animal. This practice undermines the framework for life in the oceans that we rely on for food, and for at least half of the oxygen we breathe.

Since the release of Sharkwater in 2007, most of the world has banned shark finning and innumerable territories and companies have gone Fin Free – banning the possession of shark fins – including New York, California, and some Canadian cities like Mississauga and Oakville. The Chinese government outlawed shark-fin soup at government functions, and the demand for shark fin in China is dropping, with some estimating declines as much as 70 per cent. People started fighting for sharks, and there are great conservation initiatives around the world working on protecting them.

Despite the positive momentum, studies still show that humans are killing 100 million sharks a year. Remember: Sharks kill 5-10 humans a year.

For our species to survive into the future, the health of our life-support system – our environment – is paramount. The oceans regulate the climate and concentrations of gases in the atmosphere; house 80 per cent of life on Earth; produce the oxygen for every second breath we take and provide the main protein source for much of our planet. By killing sharks, we're destroying the top predator from the most important ecosystem for our own survival.

Sharks can be saved, but they need our help. The first step: Letting go of our fear.

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