More trouble at sea. A few weeks ago the documentary Ghost Fleet gave us the lowdown on human slave-trafficking and overfishing by unscrupulous seafood corporations out of Thailand. Now comes another outraged doc, calling our attention to crimes against threatened fish populations, as well as against the law-abiding people who rely on their day's catch to make a living. The wrongdoers are committing a multitude of sins with every boatload they bring into harbor, and yet only a few dedicated international do-gooders dare to call them on it, at great personal risk.
Sea of Shadows takes place in Mexico's Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez, where illegal fisherman use gill nets to trap an endangered species, the totoaba. The swim bladder of the totoaba — known locally as buche de totoaba — is renowned as a delicacy in China, with supposed medicinal powers. A totoaba swim bladder can fetch upward of $70,000 on the black market. Enter organized pirates harvesting a cash crop as fast as they can.
In their haste to capture totoaba, poachers are also bringing in an endangered species of porpoise, the vaquita, caught up in the same nets. According to the activists of Earth League International interviewed in Richard Ladkani's eye-opening new doc, the population of vaquita has dwindled down to less than 15.
Legal fishermen in the Gulf are alarmed that the wholesale indiscriminate vacuuming up of fish is killing off their livelihood. A contingent of marine veterinarians from the Earth League, plus other scientists and volunteers are naturally worried about destroyed ecosystems and species extinction. They are joined by Mexican TV investigative journalist Carlos Loret de Mola, who has declared his own personal crusade against the poachers.
On the other side, in the shadows, is a cabal of cutthroat fishing crews with apparent ties to the Sinaloa drug cartels, enabled by compromised Mexican government forces — navy, police, etc. — which somehow can never quite take action against the illegals. Further up the line, in Mexicali and Tijuana, live opportunists like Chinese restaurant owner David Lee, who is caught on concealed camera admitting that he has smuggled tons of totoaba swim bladders to Hong Kong for sale in China. Legal fishermen in the ports of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara, B.C.N. mutter darkly about the "mafia of government" and paid-off naval officers. The situation is further muddied up by the presence of local citizens who think of Earth League activists as nosy foreigners meddling in their backyard ("We are starving and you want to save vaquitas," complains one protest sign).
Into this maelstrom sails the idealistic crew of the Earth League vessel the Sea Shepherd. The poachers usually work at night, and the camera tags along on dangerous raids, opposed by gunfire. Much of the action in filmmaker Ladkani's diligent documentary takes place at sea, with drone-mounted night-vision video catching the culprits in the act, and the rescuers following up. Great amounts of money are at stake, so there's always the threat of deadly violence. Several scenes show the activists in daylight, cutting apart miles of nets strung across the water, and in the process finding one or two living creatures among the hundreds of dead fish tangled in the netting. The sense of waste is overpowering. Multitudes of unwanted fish — including a few of the nearly extinct vaquita — are killed in the search for the prized totoaba.
The issue is never resolved. That's the twin-bladed reward/failure of outrage docs like this — that we are being made aware of blatant, abundantly documented crimes against nature and humanity, but that a combination of the power of money and ordinary, commonplace inertia thwarts any easy, satisfying solution to the problem. Endangered fish are still being snatched out of the sea solely for their internal organs; poor victimized workers are still being shanghaied onto never-ending voyages on fish-factory ships, and nothing much more than a relatively obscure independent film comes of it. We can console ourselves that at least the word is getting out, but the power of profit is enormous. Think about that while watching the very well made yet strangely disheartening Sea of Shadows.