Sea of Shadows
2019, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Richard Ladkani.
REVIEWED By Sam Russek, Fri., Aug. 2, 2019
Paradoxical as it might seem, this planet suffering from human activity requires even more human activity if there’s any hope of saving it. National Geographic documentary Sea of Shadows is hell-bent on reminding us of that fact.
The film focuses on the plight of the vaquita, a species of dolphin native to the Sea of Cortez. Its numbers have dwindled to catastrophic levels (less than 15 vaquitas are thought to be alive today) due to the illegal fishing of yet another critically endangered species, the totoaba. Chinese smugglers pay up to $100,000 for the totoaba’s bladder, a delicacy in China erroneously believed to contain healing properties, which in turn has facilitated the establishment of an organized crime network much like a drug cartel.
Director Richard Ladkani follows activists, journalists, fishermen, scientists, and undercover operatives (previously involved in the searches for El Chapo and Osama Bin Laden) on their quest to save an area so beautiful that marine biologist Jacques Cousteau once called it “the aquarium of the planet.” This is a border documentary without the border: the combined efforts of many meet roadblock after roadblock in the form of government corruption, neglect, violence, and the sheer size of the cartel, while the most vulnerable in the region are caught in the crossfire.
Ladkani argues that, left unregulated, fishing for the “cocaine of the sea” will devastate the region’s ecosystem; but, at the same time, a government ban on fishing in an area reliant on fish for survival spells death for local communities. In the town of San Felipe, some fishermen risk being caught by the Navy, while others drive 200 miles south to a legal fishing zone, but the majority take to the streets to make their voice heard. In one protest, the people hold a banner that reads, “We’re starving and they’re busy saving the vaquita.”
This is where the film’s blindspot is most apparent. When a riot breaks out to demand the release of a handful of poachers, the reasoning as to why the public wants these people released remains opaque. The film asks but never answers an iteration of that old nativist nonsequitur, why can’t they all just fish somewhere legally? Saving the vaquita is important for the continued stability of the ecosystems throughout the Sea of Cortez, but methods of conservation require local voices to inform the process. Though Ladkani spends time speaking to one family of fishermen and a handful of poachers, the perspective of what seems like the majority of the town, given the size of the riot, is muddied by a lack of other voices, and the totality of the town’s experience is left indistinct.