Kristen Naeem | Staff Writer
Filmmaker Matthew Podolsky, seated besides conservationists and attendees, re-watched footage of the impoverished fishermen of San Felipe, Mexico hurl rocks and fight with Mexican police in full riot gear during the Aquarium of the Pacific’s screening of his National Geographic documentary Sea of Shadows on Monday, Jan. 6.
After the Mexican government banned gillnet fishing in order to protect the endangered vaquita porpoise, it faced backlash from the working class fishing community, who felt their livelihoods were being valued less than wildlife.
Scenes from Sea of Shadows showed the violent aftermath of the 2018 arrests of three fishermen in San Felipe, Mexico. The trio had been caught with gillnets and scales of the endangered totoaba fish, whose swim bladder is prized in Chinese markets. Originally, the swim bladder of the totoaba was valued for alleged medicinal benefits, but is now seen as a sign of opulence and is often gifted to expectant mothers.
If a poor fisherman is able to catch a totoaba he can sell it for around $5,000, a tempting offer in the struggling working class community of San Felipe. However, this poses problems not only because the totoaba is threatened, but because the gillnets used to catch them also inadvertently kill other marine life, including the world’s rarest porpoise, the vaquita.
After the riot on the shores of San Felipe, the three fishermen were released by the police due to public pressure.
Both the Chinese blackmarket for totoaba and the American demand for seafood contribute to the continued illicit use of gillnets by Mexican fisherman in the Gulf of California. Panelists urged attendees of the screening to purchase “vaquita friendly,” seafood once it becomes available in American markets, although as of yet there are no products marketed as such.
It is extremely difficult to tell if shrimp in an American market was illegally caught using a gillnet in the vaquita’s habitat, the Gulf of California, as it would just state “Product of Mexico.”
After the screening ended, Podolsky came onstage along with Kim Thompson, director of Seafood for the Future, and José A. Zertuche-González, a researcher with Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Ensenada, and criticized the Mexican government’s banning of gillnets without providing licensing to fishermen for other, more sustainable methods.
There are only about 15 vaquita left. They are so rare that many fishermen in San Felipe believe they are a myth because no one they know has ever seen one, which adds to the community’s resentment of conservation efforts.
“They’ve never interacted with [a vaquita]–– they’ve never engaged with one,” Thompson said. “So, here you have not just their own government, but you have people from other countries who aren’t even part of their communities or country coming in and telling them that they’re losing their livelihood. And I think that’s something really important that we need to understand.”
While the future of the vaquita looks bleak, panelists encouraged attendees to educate themselves about conservation efforts and sustainable seafood sources.
“The goal of the film is not to provide you, our audience, with all of the information on this issue. It’s not possible, even in 100 minutes,” Podolsky said. “Our goal with this film was to inspire audiences to go forth and seek out additional information on your own. So it’s about finding ways to take action and finding ways to do things, that maybe can’t directly help the vaquita, but can help other endangered species.”