Documentary, PG-13, 104 minutes 3 chiles
The thing about death in a documentary is that you can’t console yourself with the reassurance that it’s only a movie.
There are a couple of tragic deaths, one human and one aquatic, that stand out among the devastation in Richard Ladkani’s eco-thriller (with co-directors Matthew Podolsky and Sean Bogle) about the fight to save a tiny porpoise called the vaquita from extinction. The irony is that the destruction of the vaquita isn’t even aimed at this gentle creature with a smile etched by nature into its face. The target of this wholesale harvesting is the totoaba, a fellow denizen of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, hunted by fishermen for its swim bladder. Why? Because in China, there persists the belief that the totoaba bladder has miraculous healing properties, and the stuff is so sought after that it fetches staggering prices, earning it the appellation “cocaine of the sea.”
Where there’s cocaine, there are ruthless criminals, and the same applies to the illegal totoaba trade. The Pablo Escobar of this seagoing “drug” is a fellow named Oscar Parra, the chief of a totoaba trafficking ring. The Mexican government has outlawed the harvesting of the increasingly rare fish, and it is also illegal to kill vaquitas, which swim in the same waters and are caught up in the nets set for the totoaba. But the profits are enormous, and the hunt goes on. There may be fewer than 30 of the world’s smallest porpoise remaining on the planet.
The film pursues a number of different threads, following a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ship as its crew races to remove the illegal nets that are set to scoop up the totoaba and anything else that gets entangled in their mesh. There is also a team of marine biologists who have undertaken a mission to capture vaquitas and hold them in protective custody until the threat to the species has passed. This project provides the film’s most wrenching sequence. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Ladkani (The Ivory Game) also examines the investigative work done by a couple of dedicated Mexican conservationists, the sullen resistance of local fishermen to the harvesting ban, and the complicity of the Mexican government and Navy officials in the nefarious trade.
The powerful subject matter is enough to carry this movie, although the telling is sometimes weakened by its too-broad approach. The battle to save this small marine mammal is cast in the broader context of our world’s ecological struggles. As one activist says, “If we lose the vaquita, with all of our resources, we lose the planet.”