Until There Are None Left: Sea of Shadows

Thomas Schueneman

The story told in the documentary film "Sea of Shadows" threads its way from the Totoaba fish, an endangered fish found only in Sea of Cortez, and wends through vanishing species, disrupted fishing grounds, straight into the dark heart of human greed and violence. It is an allegorical tale, complete with heroes and villains, good and evil, and how we should live on this planet.

The other night I attended a screening of the film Sea of Shadows. It is a true story, well told, of a brutal criminal cartel operating off the Mexican coast along the Sea of Cortez.

Characterized as the “cocaine of the sea,” the swim bladders of the Totoaba, a rare species of large fish found in rapidly dwindling numbers in the Sea of Cortez, sell for upwards of $100,000. An illicit market built on human imagining — a raw delusion of the medicinal properties of the Totoaba’s bladder.

The Totoaba fish. The swim bladder of these fish are considered the "cocaine of the sea"
The Totoabe fishImage courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Making an illicit market

It doesn’t much matter what it is, but the more exotic, the better. It must be illicit. Then you have a market that will do whatever it takes to supply a demand willing to pay enormous sums for nothing more than bragging rights. Which is to say a live totoaba was killed for its swim bladder so a buyer in China could have it.

The tragedy doesn’t end with just the Totoaba. As with the huge mesh nets rogue fisherman use to ensnare the Totoabe, it catches every other living marine animal in the Sea of Cortez. Among the turtles and other sea creatures caught in the maw of the nets is the Vaquita. A rare, almost mythic species of porpoise, is is the world’s smallest cetacean, but also the most endangered marine mammal on Earth.

As of the time the movie was filmed, there are 15 Vaquitaleft. Most likely, as of this writing, even fewer.

The Vaquita. With no more than 15 animals left, they are the most endangered marine mammal on the planet.
The fate of the Vaquita represents the fate of the Sea of Cortez

An ageless struggle

And here the story becomes allegorical. The fight of good against evil. Humanity’s fallen oneness with and against nature.

Fighting endemic corruption and the conflicted local population of San Felipe, the brave crew of the Sea Shepherd goes out night after night, patrolling the waters with specialized drones, built to scan the night sky and track boats on the water.

Local fishermen who have fished these waters all their lives want things to be the way they were. Before the cartel moved in. They go out and hunt for illegal nets, pulling them up when they find them. But it is getting dangerous for them.

A daring, is desperate, rescue operation to capture and move the remaining fish into a kind of protective custody ends in silent heartbreak as the first Vaquita captured dies; even as the team urgently tries to return the animal to the open water — and very certain death. Caught in a dragnet taking place in the “aquarium of the planet”.

Dedicated investigative journalists shine the light in the dark corners of the market for totoaba swim bladders. They don’t let go. The lure of money and brutal power runs deep and in many directions. Chasing the story straight into the organization, they hold up to the world what is happening in the Sea of Cortez.

With only 15 (or less) Vaquita left, the obvious question is whether they are already functionally extinct. No, we are told. DNA tests show the population can recover from as few as 15. But 14? 13? 12?…

It is a struggle to the death. For a species of fish, yes. But for far more.

All seems calm at low tide on the Sea of Cortez
Low tide on the Sea of Cortez along the coast near San FelipePhoto by Bill Gracey on Flickr

Until there are no more left

“The death of the Vaquita means the death of the sea,” says one resident, “There will be nothing to stop it.”

Steeped in the tradition of what the fishing town once was, he sees the fate of the Vaquita as his own. “The death of the sea means the death of the people.”

Caught in the middle of the illegal fishing trade in the Sea of Cortez are the fisherman who have fished these waters all their lives.
Fishermen ply their trade and keep the tradition alive. Photo by wisley on Flickr

Is this traditional fisherman’s fate — caught in the human net of greed, avarice, and violence — our own?

The film leaves you feeling a little punched in the gut. Just as it is meant to.

I am left pondering, as is my tendency to do in quiet moments, what will become of us. Our best efforts so often thwarted by ever more sophisticated ways to “feed the animal”. The growing throng of voiceless, powerless individuals doing the best they can to stay alive, forced to move in the stream of social forces beyond there control or power of persuasion.

At this point, you may accuse me of being some manner of neo-Malthusian. You might be right. I was only 11 or 12 when I learned of Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, carrying a paperback copy of the book with me to school. I am skeptical of oversimplified characterizations. I like to think my “neo-Malthusianism” is more nuanced today than when I was 12.

In the end, I am not incapable of a leap of faith.

Or at least gratitude that there is a Sea of Cortez, even though we are killing it.

Or a vast, utterly mysterious and beautiful ocean, even though we are acidifying it and choking it with plastic.

Or a lush, utterly alive Amazon rainforest, even though we are burning it down.

Given the enormous momentum and power behind business-as-usual, I nominally err on the side of “guarded pessimism”. I remain guarded against abject alienation from hope.

Don’t say “there is little hope,” say “there is a little hope”.

That’s all it takes.

Our hearts will ache, and when they don’t anymore, then all is lost. Lean in.


“Beauty, more than bitterness, makes the heart ache”

- Sara Teasdale


How you can support the Daily PlanetWatch


Humanity In The Anthropocene


Thomas Schueneman