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Caught in the Crossfire

Sea of Shadows documentary showcases the plight of the critically endangered vaquita

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When Boise-based filmmaker Matt Podolsky began exploring the idea of making a documentary about the critically endangered vaquita, he had no idea what he was in for. Not only did his company, Wild Lens Collective, work collaboratively with Leonardo DiCaprio's film company Appian Way Productions, but he would also be part of the first crew to ever handle a live vaquita.

The vaquita is a species of porpoise native to the northern part of the Gulf of California. There are roughly 10 known vaquita left in the world, and while conservation efforts are underway, a meaningful recovery of the species is highly unlikely, Podolsky said.

"Obviously we were not hoping for that latter outcome, but we knew either way we have a really compelling story," he said.

Podolsky's film, Sea of Shadows, will premiere at The Flicks Friday, Sept. 13. The film begins as 7:30, but there is a reception at 6:30.

The story of the vaquita is not simply a tale of a marine mammal going extinct. Instead, it's a story that can be applied to any other species running the risk of going extinct, he said.

"We really are making a big push as far as an impact campaign," he said. "This is like the last chance."

Many marine species in all areas of the world suffer from the impacts humans have had on the ocean. Rising ocean temperatures and pollution devastate coral reefs and many species of fish. As far as climate change is concerned, the vaquita has weathered that storm. Podolsky said there's no evidence that vaquita are dramatically impacted by the warming oceans. Instead, its rapid decline is attributed to one thing: illegal fishing operations.

"Actually, one of the scientists who is basically the head of this big government for the research program, he did research specifically targeting that question," Podolsky said.

What the research discovered is vaquita mortality is almost solely linked to fishing.

"The mortality is all entanglement in gill nets," Podolsky said. "All gill nets are not created equal."

The majority of fishing nets that trap the vaquita actually target totoaba, a fish with an extremely valuable swim bladder. While totoaba fishing was banned in 1975, there is still a black market for the swim bladder, largely in China.

In 2018, Chinese customs seized 980 pounds of totoaba swim bladders, totalling roughly $26 million. The bladders are sold as traditional medicine on the black market, and are believed to treat fertility and circulation issues.

Peak vaquita population was believed to be in the thousands, but the number of the marine mammal has precipitously declined in recent years. In 1997, there were roughly 600 vaquita living in the Gulf of California. By 2008, that number had reached 200, and a visual survey in 2015 showed 60. Now, with only 10 left, extinction seems nearly certain, Podolsky said.

"It's really sort of our last chance to save the species," he said. "At the same time, we want the message to be more broadly about extinction."

Preserving the remaining vaquita is another challenge in and of itself. While the Mexican government proposed capturing the living vaquita and trying to bring them up to stronger numbers in captivity, Podolsky's crew experienced first-hand why that is not a viable solution.

A boat Podolsky was on was part of the crew that captured a living vaquita—the first time a vaquita had ever been caught alive and on video. However, it was so panicked that the crew was forced to let it go.

"We had, depending on the day, we had a number of videographers and shooters out there trying to capture the moment," Podolsky said.

Another vaquita was captured later and kept in captivity, but died due to the stress of its captive environment.

While the fishing operations are illegal, those who have the right connections know who to bribe, and the vaquita continue to decline, Podolsky said.

These are actually large-scale criminal syndicates hunting for totoaba bladders, not just fisherman trying to make an extra buck on the side, he said. The vaquita, simply put, are caught in the crossfire.

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