Sea of Shadows film ‘last stand’ for vaquita porpoise

Sundance-winning documentary focuses on fishermen and traffickers threatening Mexican vaquita with extinction to meet demand for totoaba swim bladder

Fisherman Javier Valverde

Fisherman Javier Valverde (Image © National Geographic)

Sea of Shadows is a powerful film. Deliberately so, according to director Richard Ladkani. Because this is a film with a mission: to save the vaquita from extinction.

Looking more like a slick Hollywood crime thriller than an environmental documentary, Sea of Shadows vividly portrays the web of violence, organised crime, poverty and corruption that is pushing this tiny porpoise to the brink of extinction.

vaquita porpoise
The vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean (Image © National Geographic)

With fewer than 20 mature individuals thought to be left in existence, the vaquita is found only in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Its numbers have declined precipitately since the turn of the century due to illegal fishing for the totoaba, a large croaker that shares its habitat and is also listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list.

Not specifically targeted, the vaquita is being killed by the gillnets used to catch the similar-sized totoaba. Described by Sea Shepherd’s Jack Hutton, one of the main protagonists in Ladkani’s film, as “walls of death”, these nets have been illegal since 2015, when the Mexican authorities issued a temporary ban on their use in the Sea of Cortez. This ban was made permanent in 2017, but hasn’t stopped fishermen from going after the totoaba, which is highly prized for its giant swim bladder.


Demand for these swim bladders, also known as fish maw, comes mainly from China, where it is thought to have medicinal properties. But as Hutton explains, speaking in an interview following the UK premiere of Sea of Shadows last week: “Really, it’s just as a symbol of wealth. No one spends US$80,000 on a medicine that has no scientific backing… It’s traded like gold due to the totoaba itself being on the red list. It’s the economics of extinction.”

With trade in both the totoaba and the vaquita banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), it’s also the economics of the black market. And in Mexico, the black market means the drug cartels.

Setting out at dawn from his humble home on the outskirts of San Felipe, centre of the totoaba fishery, fisherman Javier Valverde describes how the situation has deteriorated in his hometown: “It used to be very quiet here. There weren’t any bandits. It only got ugly quite recently. It’s all about money. They no longer have to deal drugs via Mazatlan or Colombia. The ‘cocaine of the sea’, as they call it, the totoaba, it’s right here.”

Valverde and his family support the ban on gillnet fishing, and are employed by the government to cut the nets illegally set by their fellow fishermen. This has made them many enemies in San Felipe, where there is significant opposition to the government’s decision.

Protest of Fishermen in San Felipe. Clip from Sea of Shadows movie
A protest against the Mexican government’s ban on gillnet fishing in San Felipe. The sign reads: “The people are starving, but they’re still busy saving the vaquita”. (Image © National Geographic)

Director Ladkani understands this opposition is the result of poverty. All the fishermen want is “a totoaba in the net and US$5,000 on the table”. But this is short-term thinking, says Ladkani, sitting next to Jack Hutton in a plush London hotel. The fishermen “don’t understand the consequences”.

And consequences there will be if the vaquita goes extinct. This is the main point Ladkani is seeking to drive home, a point repeated by most of the protagonists in his film. In the words of undercover investigator Andrea Crosta: “If we don’t save the vaquita, we will lose the whole Sea of Cortez, we will lose the aquarium of the planet.”

But this is not simply an issue of biodiversity and the web of dependencies that make it possible for all ecosystems to survive. Ladkani explains that once the vaquita has gone, there will be nothing to hold back the cartel. They will move in and “empty the ocean of life to go for the totoaba”.

The film makes clear, though, that the situation is already spiralling out of control, especially after the failure of the VaquitaCPR project, described as “the largest operation ever conducted to save a marine mammal from extinction”.

The aim of this project was to capture individual vaquita and keep them in a safe enclosure away from the gillnets, an endeavour never attempted before. Marine veterinarian Dr Cynthia Smith was well aware of the risks involved: “The hardest thing is going to be if they don’t accept our care. Some species just don’t tolerate that – and then we have to put them back. So we’re going to have to choose between possible death in our care or certain death in the ocean. So what do you do? How do you make that decision?”

In the end, the worst happened when a mature female died a few hours after being captured. Operating the only camera allowed on the scene, Ladkani describes how devastated everyone was by the event. “No-one could possibly imagine it would die… Everyone was doing everything in their power, but it didn’t work.”

With conservation efforts failing, the onus has fallen even more heavily on the Mexican authorities to stop the cartels. But despite a heavy military presence, fear and greed have worked their poison, even to the very highest levels of the Mexican navy, allowing the illegal fishing to continue.

It would seem to be a hopeless situation. But Sea of Shadows does not in any way strike a tone of despair. In fact, it is inspiring. And with the help of an investigation led by Andrea Crosta, it also offers a solution: go after the Chinese traffickers.

“[Cartel boss] Oscar Parra is just a tool. The Chinese traders need people like Parra to keep the trade on,” says Crosta as he sets out on an undercover mission to collect evidence on a shadowy buyer in Mexicali.

Landaki agrees: “The cartel needs a buyer. Without the Chinese, you can’t get the product to China. The Mexican narco traffickers have zero connection to China, directly. They work with the Chinese Mexican citizens… without them, they’re nothing.”

The result of Crosta’s investigation, a report exposing roughly 30 Chinese traffickers based in Mexico, has now been submitted to the Mexican authorities, and Ladkani says his team are pushing hard for action to be taken.

This is just one of the many things Ladkani is doing to ensure Sea of Shadows makes a difference for the vaquita. He is a firm believer in the power of film to bring change. And well he might be. His last documentary, The Ivory Game, helped persuade the Chinese authorities to shut down the ivory trade at the end of 2017.

But while a key message of that film was that only Beijing had the power to save the elephants, this time Ladkani is adamant the Chinese are doing everything they can. “China banned the totoaba a long time ago… They’ve done ten times more than the Mexicans,” he says.

Jack Hutton makes the point more forcibly: “To go after the mindset of the Chinese people would seem like a rather pointless thing to do for the survival of the vaquita currently. It will take a generational change… and we don’t have time for the vaquita, for the Sea of Cortez… It’s past midnight at this stage.”
It’s not too late to create a movement though. For Ladkani, his film is “the last stand” for the vaquita, and he wants to reach as big an audience as possible: “I’m not targeting the people who are already in conservation… I’m targeting the whole world. Only if we have a movement of people who wake up and see this is happening to our planet, that’s when you can create change.”


Sea of Shadows is in cinemas worldwide.

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