As a seafood restaurateur and founder of Sawyer Culinary Adventures, Louie Sawyer sought out exotic tastes for his intrepid Western clientele. During a scouting trip to Hong Kong in 2013, he and five associates dropped by a major shark fin processing facility, run by a short, fast-talking kingpin who goes by the name of Mr. Eddie. All 14 of the species most prevalent in the shark fin trade are classified as threatened or nearly threatened, partly due to Chinese consumption of shark fin soup, but Hong Kong’s teeming markets are insensitive to this fact. Cluttered storefronts also openly sell endangered sea horses and hawksbill sea turtles, along with elaborate elephant tusk carvings. Mr. Eddie’s operation the Walmart of the endangered-species trade, Sawyer called it is not in the habit of welcoming camera-toting foreigners, and Mr. Eddie was initially suspicious of the group. He scrutinized their business cards and peppered them with questions.
As his gruff manner grew more intimidating, one of Sawyer’s colleagues suggested they ought to leave. It wasn’t until they made for the door that Mr. Eddie relented. No, it’s OK. Come, come. I show you around here. Sawyer’s crew had reason to feel uneasy, considering that their identities were, in fact, a ruse. Louie Sawyer was actually Louis Psihoyos, an activist filmmaker whose first documentary, The Cove, exposed the clandestine slaughter of dolphins in a Japanese seaside town, earning an Academy Award in 2010. His second film, Racing Extinction, airing on the Discovery Channel on December 2, takes up the man-made causes behind what biologists call the sixth mass extinction”the spate of plant and animal losses that threaten to eradicate up to half of all living species on Earth within this century.
During the same week, they were in town to collect their Oscar for The Cove, Psihoyos team conducted an undercover sting of a Santa Monica, California, restaurant that served whale meat, ultimately shaming the restaurant into closing. Among other stunts portrayed in Racing Extinction: They posed as importers of fish oil supplements to infiltrate a mainland Chinese shark dealer; captured unprecedented footage of humans swimming alongside migratory blue whales in Mexico; and, using a Tesla retrofitted with a powerful projector, blasted the sides of US corporate facilities with images of the animals that their business activities are said to endanger.
In Hong Kong, Mr. Eddie led Psihoyos and his undercover team across an alley to a building with a shark sculpture hanging off the facade. He typed a code into a keypad and slid open the front door to reveal a storage room filled with bags of dried sea creatures. On the walls hung posters that identified various shark species and the characteristics of their fins, which fetch up to $2,000 a pound on the Asian market. Psihoyos and three accomplices wore tiny pinhole cameras disguised as shirt buttons, which had been provided by a specialist who designs covert video surveillance gear for human rights groups and law enforcement agencies.
In China, merely wearing such devices is grounds for imprisonment. Two others with Psihoyos, including Shawn Heinrichs, a cinematographer and marine conservationist who’d been kicked out of Mr. Eddie’s facility before for attempting to film, wore digital SLR cameras dangling around their necks, discreetly capturing video.