There are just 15 vaquita porpoises left in the Gulf of California, and in just a few months, that number could plummet to zero. The earth’s most endangered whale has become a victim not only of the usual environmental suspects, but, due to the fact that its habitat in the Sea of Cortez is also home to the totoaba, a valuable fish, it has been caught up in none other than the drug trade.
This week’s “Scheer Intelligence” guest, Austrian filmmaker Richard Ladkani, recorded the shocking and dangerous story of the activists, scientists and journalists risking their lives to save the rare whale in his documentary “Sea of Shadows.”
“The film ‘Sea of Shadows’ for me was one of the most important films that I’ve ever made,” Ladkani tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of his podcast. “Because here you have an example of criminal syndicates attacking planet earth. And the clock’s really ticking, because if they continue to do what they do—if they continue their fight against this ocean, for money and greed—they’re actually going to destroy one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
“Nobody has ever heard about this war even happening,” the filmmaker goes on. “It’s happening in the shadows, but only a five hours’ drive south of Los Angeles. And here you have a species go extinct—the smallest whale on earth, a beautiful creature right out of a Disney movie, the vaquita.”
The urgency of the issue is highlighted by the fact that at the time of filming, there were double the amount of vaquitas left, indicating an alarming spike in deaths. To add insult to injury, many other marine creatures are being wiped out in the area due to these illegal activities.
Drug cartels became involved in the totoaba fishing trade partly because, according to Ladkani, it’s much easier money than selling narcotics. Their involvement in the overfishing of the Sea of Cortez, however, makes it even more difficult for efforts to save the vaquita to take place because of the deadly threat that getting involved poses to activists, journalists and scientists, as well as to the very fishermen entangled in the trade.
One of the film’s most poignant moments, according to Scheer, comes when a group of well-meaning scientists believe they are saving a vaquita, only to have it die on their watch.
“[This scene] shows that it’s a complex problem,” says the Truthdig editor in chief. “I think the takeaway from your movie is, yes, it’s important to save the Sea of Cortez; it’s important to save the vaquita. But it has to be done in a comprehensive, serious way. It can’t just be talk. You know, and it’s not going to be just round up the existing 15 and put them in San Diego in Sea World.”
Scheer also highlights how the problem can be traced back to extreme poverty in Mexico, which is at the foundation of violence such as this, and is linked to Western consumption of narcotics.
“One of the depressing things is some of [the fisherman] get killed as a result,” Sheer tells the filmmaker. “But there’s an even larger group, at least visibly in your film, that needs this money, that needs to cooperate with the gangsters, because they’re on the lowest edge of poverty.”
Listen to Ladkani and Scheer discuss the dire situation in the Sea of Cortez, the dangers the filmmakers faced in the creation of their documentary, and the glimmer of hope that had come from speaking truth to power using “Sea of Shadows.” You can also read the full transcript below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s a highly regarded, and I must say very gutsy filmmaker, very brave filmmaker: Richard Ladkani, who is Austrian, but wanders the world. And the two movies that lead me to think that he’s very brave was his dealing with the poaching of tusks in Africa, and international crime and trading and everything. And then his current movie, which is on the shortlist for an Oscar in the documentary category, and it’s very powerful: “Sea of Shadows.” And it’s about a fish you probably have not heard about–or I shouldn’t say that; one fish you maybe have heard about, the totoaba, which some people have called “the cocaine of the sea.” And because it’s—what is it, its bladder, swim bladder, is highly prized in China—what, for both taste and possible medical value, right?
Richard Ladkani: Yeah, exactly, yeah. It can reach up to $100,000 in China. Totoaba, yeah.
RS: Right. Now, to catch the totoaba, they use nets. And the nets, as we know, kill lots of animals and fish. And this is in—what did Jacques Cousteau call the Sea of Cortez, the—
RL: The aquarium of the world.
RS: The aquarium of the world. So this is actually the most productive, important fishing ground in the world. And then there are people in—I don’t want to get ahead of the story on the documentary. But in addition to endangering the smallest whales in the world—of which there may only be 15, who happen to also swim in these waters—and they are caught in these nets. They are not the prize of these fishermen, but they are caught in these nets, they die. And as I say, there’s only 15 left in the world. And, but in addition to that ecological disaster of the disappearance of an important species, you also may lose the fishing in this whole area, because of fishing it out and killing a lot of fish and disrupting the whole environment.
So Richard Ladkani was in the midst of a tour here to push a movie that’s highly regarded. I appreciate that you’re willing to take the time. And one point I want to make is this movie—you know, I know it’s National Geographic, you think it’s going to be like—somebody once said it’s like watching mud move or something. No, it’s a high-action thriller. It’s actually not been criticized, but Kenny Turan in a really interesting review in the L.A. Times, and I think on NPR, talked about—you know, at first he thought, what is this? High action—but it is. It’s got the mafia, it’s got a chase, it’s got—you know, it’s scary. And one thing I came away thinking is you are one either extremely reckless or very brave filmmaker. [Laughter] Because you know, this is really a scene where you are confronting—and set the economics of this—you’re confronting a violent, gangster cartel that wants to grab not the vaquitas, but rather the totoabas, for their liver—
RL: Swim bladder.
RS: —their swim bladder. And they’re willing to kill for it, because these things eventually could sell for $100,000 apiece in China.
RL: Exactly, yeah. Well, the film “Sea of Shadows,” you know, for me was one of the most important films that I’ve ever made. Because here you have an example of criminal syndicates attacking planet earth. And here, you know, the clock’s really ticking, because if they continue to do what they do—if they continue their fight against this ocean, for money and greed—they’re actually going to destroy one of the most beautiful places on earth. And nobody has ever heard about this war even happening. It’s happening in the shadows, but only a five hours’ drive south of Los Angeles. And here you have a species go extinct—the smallest whale on earth, a beautiful creature right out of a Disney movie, the vaquita.
And here you have, you know, people making so much money because it’s easy money. It’s much easier than the drug trade or the weapons trade or, you know, prostitution rings and things like that. Because there is no consciousness yet about it. The government sees it as a petty crime. As, like, oh, they are a little overfishing, and—you know, but in reality, they’re killing an ocean; at the same time, they’re using fishermen through means of extortion to work for them, lure them into the trade. Then they become, like, they’re basically dependent on these mafia bosses to pay them back. Because they need money to buy the nets, for gasoline, for ships, like that. So they—you know, they become entrenched in a circle of violence that they can never get out of. And if they dare, they just kill them; they execute them publicly, they burn them on their pangas. And it’s really like a violent war against planet earth, and people should know that this is happening.
RS: Yeah, and one of the more depressing things in your film—it ends with a statistic. There are only 15, by your estimation, vaquitas left. And they are a beautiful species. And you actually, unfortunately, have the honesty in this film to show one of the do-gooder efforts killing maybe at that point one of 16 vaquitas, in the attempt to move them to a sanctuary area; that doesn’t work. And that’s when we’re turned back to, well, we’d better stop some of this net fishing, and be more concerned about this, or you’re going to lose this animal. And I want to point out the vaquita is not even the prey here. They’re an incidental—
RL: Yeah, just bycatch. They are just the poor victims.
RS: Yeah. And I want to get back to the guts of it, because—and the courage involved in filming. Because it’s not that the Mexican government is just indifferent; they’re bought off. And you show it on every level, the local law enforcement forces there. And this connecting it with the drug trade, I found fascinating, because—yes, this is another example where there’s a demand for something that can be trafficked in Mexico. OK, so it’s not cocaine or heroin, but it’s this fish that has a swim bladder that’s thought to be—an international market can be developed for it. And because Mexico is a poor country, and because the government’s ability to minister to its needs is very limited, and control of crime is very limited, it creates great havoc. As the drug trade has.
And one of the questions that’s addressed in the film is, what are you going to do about it? And how are you going to deal with poverty in that area? Because after all, that’s what fuels the drug trade; it also fuels this battle over an endangered species. Because you got these fishermen, and they, in your film, they are divided. Yes, there’s a smaller group that is willing to work with you and cooperate. And as–I didn’t mention it, one of the depressing things is some of them get killed as a result. That’s a statement made at the end of the film. But there’s an even larger group, at least visibly in your film, that needs this money, that needs to cooperate with the gangsters, and–because, what, they’re on the lowest edge of poverty.
RL: Right. Well, look, that’s a complicated issue, of course. The fishermen—by the way, nobody got killed because of a consequence of the movie; they got killed because they challenged the cartel by publicly saying, we’re not gonna—I’m not gonna be able to pay you back my debt. This guy owed $54,000 to the cartel for fishing nets that he had bought with that money. He lost all the nets because Sea Shepherd took them, and then [he] went out and said, I’m not going to pay you back. I’m done with you, cartel. Like, you know, you can—whatever. And then they decided to publicly execute him as a warning to all the other fishermen who go against the cartel. So these are the people we’re dealing with.
The problem here is that poverty cannot be an excuse for poaching, and for attacking nature and the resources that we have. You know, you can’t just say, oh, I’m poor, so I’m going to trade with drugs, or I’m gonna, you know, do human trafficking and things like that. It’s not an excuse. This is a war that is being led by cartels who are luring fishermen into the easy business. You know, there’s very low fines, very low risk, all you have to do is work with the cartel and you will be making a lot of money. Now the problem is they are not seeing the bigger picture. Once you work with the cartel, you can never escape the cartel. They will haunt you forever. So—especially if you are indebted to them, which all of the fishermen are.
The second thing is that the fishing methods they are using are killing everything. The entire fishing grounds are getting destroyed. Like, they’re killing the whales, the sharks, the turtles, the dolphins, the sea lions—everything gets destroyed, because they’re using giant ghost nets that drift freely in the water, randomly killing everything. And then they pull them up. All of the fish they catch is, like, rejected—is basically thrown into the water to rot. All they care about is the totoaba. They cut out just the swim bladder, throw the rest of the fish back in the water. So basically, they have just killed everything just to get a few swim bladders that will get them $20, $30, $40,000 on that day, right? Because in Mexico, it’s only worth $5,000, but that’s still a lot of money.
So they are—they’re not thinking beyond the money that is dangling in front of them. They’re only thinking quick money now, not realizing that they’re destroying their fishing grounds forever. So if they keep going, in five years, there will be no more fish in that area. It’s going to be a dead sea, you know. They’re killing all the big fish, and everything is dependent on each other. You know, you take big fish out of the equation, all the shrimp and other fish, other creatures in the water, they all suffer. There’s always a chain reaction if you take one species out. So this is the problem, and we are trying to make even the fishermen understand—with the film, you know; we made this film also for the fishermen, so that they understand the bigger picture here.
The big problem also is that if the government cannot save the vaquita, and if they cannot show huge efforts in trying to protect the vaquita, there will now be a major trade embargo by the United Nations against Mexico. The threat is that they have to produce results this November and then again in June next year, and if it’s not convincing what they’ve been doing, Mexico will be hit with a trade embargo against all wildlife species coming out of Mexico. So we’re talking billions of dollars. And that happened because also the UN has shown our film four times, because they thought it’s so important, at their headquarters—once in New York, twice in Geneva and Switzerland, and once in Vienna. And out of those screenings came this big threat against the country, because they realize you’re screwing with your own environment. It’s not just about the vaquita, it’s the entire Sea of Cortez that’s going. So this needs to stop.
RS: Yes, but you know, you created a work of art. And I experienced this work of art. And I came away from it with a concern. I’m not—this has nothing to do with denying the value of the film, which is I think extraordinary and brilliantly made. Let me just put that out there. I think everyone should watch it, I hope it wins prizes. This is not a criticism of the film. But the film raised a question which was raised by, what seemed to me, ordinary people who were demanding the release of a mob figure. Now, we know that the mob has been able—I grew up in the Bronx, so the mob could dominate a lot of ordinary people, and so forth. But I just wonder, and I think this is a question that the environmental movement has to address—that there are people who are dependent for their living on activities that suddenly the world may turn against, or may say you can’t do it in that way. And they are in a vulnerable position. One response would be to say, OK, this world that is so concerned about the vaquita—legitimately—should pump money, resources, educational opportunity, better ways of doing fishing, to sustain life of these people who are exploiting—
RL: Of course.
RS: Yes. And that they have a right to be concerned. And they—you can understand why they take this money from the mob figure. And so what I like about the film is that it encourages complex thinking about the environment. Yes, you do not want another species to die. Yes, these are beautiful and interesting animals, and there’s only 15 of them. And thank goodness there is your film, calling this attention to a problem that was being ignored, you know. And yes, the net fishing and so forth—all these are real issues.
But the fact of the matter is, it can’t always be the concern from top-down, well-intentioned, more affluent people who actually come from countries that have abused the resources of the world at random, for centuries and centuries, and now step in and say “you got to stop doing this”—without coming up with the alternative. And it seems to me the Mexican government was indifferent to it until you got the publicity–which is very good, and you should be applauded for that. But at no point did they say, OK, first of all, let’s move in there with the resources to deal with the mafia, and secondly let’s talk about and support a better way of doing fishing and preservation.
RL: Right. Well, there is a complex plan in place where the government—and that’s the action plan that we’re demanding from the government, is you—any solution has to be a solution also for the fishermen. The fishermen come first. Like, as long as the fishermen suffer, there’s not going to be a solution that is sustainable. The mafia will win, you know. Like, a poor fisherman without any money and everything is easy prey for the cartels, so they will always get them. Of course, there has to be a solution for the fishermen, and that has been ignored. But we address that very strongly in the film by having, you know, main characters being fishermen who have not yet sided with the cartel.
They’re trying to—they’re hoping for the government to step in and give them that solution. And we’re talking about, of course, you need alternative fishing gear in the area, where they can go out and fish—but the lure has to be taken out of the equation. As long as you dangle $5,000 for a single swim bladder on the Mexican shores, that will later down the trafficking chain turn into $100,000–but the fishermen are not going to benefit from the $100,000, they are benefiting from $5,000. But as long as you dangle a $5,000 package, you know, in front of them, they may go for it. Unless the consequence of doing, going down that path is very big, and they understand—we’re going to get arrested, we’re going to get in trouble, the cartel is no good business. You know, like, there needs to be some consequence for taking that decision.
On the other hand, these fishermen didn’t do so bad before. They’re not the poorest of the poor. You know, San Felipe used to be a tourist destination. People would go there—it’s full of hotels and good restaurants. You know, it was very, like, highly liked. And it was a destination for many, many Americans who would want to do their vacation there. But since the trouble started with the cartel, and them controlling the sea, and all the shootouts that have happened down there, tourism is gone. You know, like, everything has collapsed. And the government basically didn’t care enough about the whole thing, they just let it happen. So we are here to turn a huge spotlight on the issue to make the government aware—this is going on, you’re going to have big problems if you do not control the illegal poaching activities.
You know, this is not legal fishing; this is poaching. This is criminal activity. It’s illegal to do it. The entire black-market trade is illegal. All the means, the nets they use, is illegal. So this is not like–you know, if they would go out and try to fish with like regular fishing rods, or like used gear that is not abusive to the vaquita and the general environment, there would be no problem. But right now, because the cartel runs the show, there is no solution until the government steps in and shows force, and at the same time presents the fishermen with options, a compensation program, you know, money for putting their kids through school, things like that. All that has to happen. And we are putting that attention—we’re forcing the Mexican government to take action because of the publicity that we’re putting behind this film. That is, you know, we have a big star behind it, we have Leonardo DiCaprio pushing the film out, we have National Geographic—
RS: He’s the executive producer.
RL: Executive producer—the film even was his idea. So he came to us and said, could you do something, because a movie can be such a powerful tool to, you know, educate the people but also raise awareness, to emotionalize them towards the vaquita that they have never even heard about. So we’re using all the means necessary. By outputting it through National Geographic, it’s going to be in 172 countries. It’s going to air Nov. 9 here in the U.S., you know; that’s commercial-free, Nov. 9 at 9 p.m. local time here in L.A.
So you know, this will be a big deal. And it’s already resulting in a lot of success. Like, the government has woken up. We had a big release in Mexico in mid-September. The president for the first time is talking about the vaquita, about a solution for the fishermen. They announced that they will send in 600 additional troops into the area to preserve control, and actually, you know, go against the cartel, which is great news. At the same time, they’re talking about helping the fishermen. Finding them ways to be out at sea again, at ease with the ocean, being able to fish with alternative gear. All that talk never happened before, you know. So this is our pushing that actually made those things happen, and we’re very, very grateful for that.
RS: OK, and we’re going to get back to pushing the film as well as the ideas connected with it. [omission for station break] We’re right back with Richard Ladkani. And the film is called “Sea of Shadows.” We haven’t even mentioned it’s about a terrifically significant boat, Sea Shepherd, and very brave people. I, first of all, I want to take my hat off to you, and I do want to push the film. What was the date you said, November—
RL: Nov. 9, it will be airing in the U.S. On the National Geographic—
RS: OK. Everyone should see this film. And as opposed to many documentaries that are well intentioned, it grabs your attention. It grabs your attention without sensationalizing, even though there’s a lot of gangsterism and fighting and chases and threats. It’s dramatically powerful, but it does it—as Kenny Turan pointed out in the L.A. Times, the great film critic, and former relative of mine—and on NPR. I admire him. And at first you’re suspicious of the title, “Sea of Shadows,” and the whole idea that there’s a lot of, as I say, chase with the gangsters and scary things, and they ram the boat or ram the motors, and so forth. But in fact, it’s quite legitimate as a depiction of what goes on when gangsters take over fishing because they want to get the sea bladder from a particular fish. And a lot of terrible things happen, and they are killers, and so forth.
So we have to say that, and I think I’ve done my due diligence in pushing this film. I don’t want to say anything now, in what remains of our time, to discourage anyone—I just want to raise some issues that the film raised for me, OK. And I will be angry with myself if I don’t bring them up, OK. And you just, you just hit on it. You know, the Mexican government is full of it on this stuff, you know. They’re not really willing to take on the gangsters. We see more recently you got someone who was elected to be president, and yet when he goes against them, things backfire, so they back off and so forth. But they don’t want to get in—and, you know, I’m not the one that brought up the larger drug trade in the discussion of this film. And even in the film, I believe, the totoaba is referred to as “the cocaine of the sea.”
RL: Exactly, yeah.
RS: And it’s something that is fueled by people outside of Mexico in a world market, as with your ivory movie—
RL: “The Ivory Game,” yeah, on Netflix, yeah.
RS: Yeah, “Ivory Game,” your other brilliant movie. OK, I got the pushing, I got the advertising out. [Laughter] No, I really believe that. I think you’re an incredible filmmaker. And—however, I want—the best compliment I can pay to an artist is to say, hey, I stayed up a couple hours after watching this thinking about it. And what did I want to think more about? And what I want to think more about is it’s the same with the larger drug trade. It’s fueled by people with money who are elsewhere, and they can finance these great, you know—these bladders, swim bladders, are packaged, they’re like four by four inches, and then they’re put in suitcases and somehow they get to Hong Kong and they get distributed. And they sell for $100,000. And the middlemen and the gangsters make all the money, and so forth. So it is very similar to the drug trade. And then, you know, we can focus on the poor people who get involved because this is the best way they can get ahead, and so forth. Or we can talk about the responsibility of international wealth, the international market.
You know, Mexico is torn apart by the drug trade, but it’s largely to feed the appetite of Americans. North Americans, I mean, right? And so—and in this case, it’s to feed the appetite of a new, wealthier class of Chinese who think, you know, there’s medicinal value to these swim bladders, correctly or incorrectly. They think they have the right to get one of these bladders for $100,000 because it’ll, what, stop cancer, or—
RL: But it’s illegal. Even in China.
RS: I understand it’s illegal, OK? And so is heroin illegal in the United States. But the fact is, it’s the money from other countries that are coming—and Mexico is not the only example—seriously profoundly distorting life in that community. And your depiction of the Sea of Cortez is life disrupted. And the reason the gangsters are viable, the reason they can throw this money around, $5,000 if you catch the right fish in your net, is because somebody in Hong Kong is willing to pay $100,000 for it, OK.
RL: Exactly, yeah.
RS: So, your next movie I would urge you to do is on the responsibility of the rich and powerful and corrupt and degenerate in this world for distorting the once-simpler life of people who fish in the Sea of Cortez. And there was, as you show in your film, real beauty to that existence, and real balance. And the fishermen who emerge as the real heroes of your film—including also, by the way, some Mexican journalists who don’t get the credit they deserve, and in your film you rely very heavily on them. And, but these fishermen who side with the environment—who side with and take the long-run view about how you save the fish and everything–you know, they are, they have to involve incredible heroism. Why? Because there are people in wealthier areas with a lot of money, willing to pay the mob to either reward or shoot them if they don’t catch the right fish.
RL: Right. Well, you see, the one thing I want to stress here is that the two movies—you know, “The Ivory Game” and “Sea of Shadows”—the problems that we’re showing, they’re not environmental problems. They are real crime problems. This is a crime story. You know, we have here the mob, who has taken control, and they’re running everything. They’re, you know, buying off the government and police and everything, they’re extorting the fishermen. So the problem we have around the world is that many of these issues are considered environmental problems. And who do they send in? Classic NGOs to come up with a solution, how do we save that species and that species. So they need to send in, like, the special forces and the police and the investigators, because this is real crime. There is nothing that is in any way different to the drug trade of what we’re seeing here. These people are heavily armed—
RS: OK, but let me just interrupt for a second. We tried that with the drug trade.
RL: I know.
RS: OK. We send in the police, and we’ve been sending a lot of U.S. police into Mexico, and so forth. And in your movie, there is a compelling scene at the end, or towards the end, where they catch some bad guys, and they catch them in the act. And yet, you know, not all of those people were in the mob. You show a very large crowd of what seemed to me ordinary people who free the gangster prisoner, OK. Now—
RL: They were all poachers. All of them.
RS: I know, but when you say—
RL: Eighty percent of the people there work for the cartel.
RS: But they weren’t born poachers.
RL: No, no. They turned toward the cartel.
RS: And so what I’m saying is, you’re absolutely right in what you say is wrong with the typical environmental, you know, let’s just appeal to the goodwill of people and not deal with the crime. But who’s making the crime profitable?
RL: Of course.
RS: And the drug trade? It’s people in Switzerland—
RL: I was trying to get to that. The one organization that we feature in the film, Earth League International, they have—they’re the only NGO that I have seen with great success tackle the crime problem in a very powerful way. Because they go after the syndicates, and they look who’s really making the money here. And they were the ones who exposed the Chinese—
RS: And who’s buying it.
RL: Exactly. They exposed the Chinese mafia in Tijuana as actually being behind this entire war that is going on in the Sea of Cortez. It’s not the cartel. The cartel is being bought by the Chinese mafia to collaborate and get them the merchandise.
RS: The Chinese mafia, where?
RL: In Tijuana, in Mexico. They are running the trade, and he’s—
RS: Yeah, that’s in your movie.
RL: Yeah. And he’s exposing that they are behind it. And that has never been even known to the Mexican government.
RS: OK, but isn’t what’s behind it their customers?
RL: In China. Of course.
RS: Yes. Or anywhere in regards to the drug trade or any other—right?
RL: Yeah, like any other. Right.
RS: And so then what do you say to those customers? Because after all, the customers are people we’re going to see today, here in Los Angeles, right? Not for the—
RL: Well, they’re very, very wealthy, rich Chinese.
RS: I know, in this particular case. But if we extend it to the drug trade, or other items that are in great demand, you have to have wealth. Whether it’s in China, or whether it’s the United States. And there’s something about the decadence of advanced capitalism, if you like. All right?
RL: Sure, yeah, yeah, yeah. Usually—like in “The Ivory Game,” all our efforts were aimed at the Chinese government to ban the ivory trade as a solution to save the elephants. And at the end, two months after the movie came out, that’s exactly what they did. And they invited us the same day they announced the ban to show the film in Beijing, and present it at the Beijing International Film Festival, which we then also won. So we have gotten the attention where we needed it. And it really, really helped the elephants survive. And again, you know, grow in numbers like they have never before. In this case, though, we did not have time—we do not have time for a mind change in China, because the vaquita is dying, probably within the next 12 months it’s going to go extinct. So this war is incredibly tough on the vaquita.
And with that, the Sea of Cortez, as I mentioned earlier, is going to get killed off—like, all the species there are going to die. The vaquita is just the first, the most prominent to go, but then all the big fish are going to go. We don’t have—because of these, you know, thousands of nets that they throw in randomly. You don’t even see them from the surface. They’re underwater, like walls of death that just kill anything. And then they drag them out with hooks to find them, or with GPS trackers. And they look, and they just killed 1,000 animals—five of them are totoaba, those are the ones they care about—and the other 1,000 they just discard and throw them back in the water to rot.
Now, we don’t have time for the Chinese people to change their mind about totoaba. That’s going to take like 20 years. Even with heavy campaigning, how do you change like a 45- to 50-year-old—that’s the target group—very new, rich Chinese, in saying oh, I shouldn’t do this because the environment is dying in Mexico in a sea I’ve never heard about and blah, blah, blah. That’s not going to happen, not in the time frame that we have. So all our attention in this case is focused on the Mexican government, because they are the only ones who can find a solution for this place.
RS: Right, but as you pointed out—and this will be a good, we can agree on this to end—it’s a very powerful movie, so you got to show it in Mexico. You did have success in shaming the Mexican government. Well, part of that shaming is they should guarantee that this will not be done at the expense of the ordinary fishermen. It is in their interests and whatever support systems, right, whatever safety net for those fishermen, including saving their lives if they stand up to the mob. But that there’s a seriousness of purpose on the part of the Mexican government.
RL: Absolutely. The fishermen have to be helped first, otherwise there is no solution.
RS: Well I’m, you know, I want to congratulate you for a very important work, but I also appreciate—and this is not—I’ve watched you in some other interviews. And I think what is great about this film is it’s a teaching tool, as any great work of art should be. It opens us up. And you were willing in this movie, as I said before, to show the failure of a conservation effort. The saddest thing in this movie, as far as the vaquitas, is when they capture one. Your Sea Shepherd boat that is celebrated, these are great people, some of the best scientists in the world concerned with this—and they kill.
RL: Yeah, but it wasn’t Sea Shepherd involved. That was a different organization, VaquitaCPR. These were just scientists, this was a government-led program. They—well, they didn’t kill it; it died in their hands of a heart attack. So I don’t know if you can call it killing, but—
RS: Well, they captured it—
RL: They captured it, and it died. But you must understand it has never, ever been near a scientist before. This is the most elusive species that we know of on the planet. No scientist had ever held one in its hands, it had never been filmed—
RS: Right, but it does show—it does show that good intentions can go awry.
RL: Of course, yeah.
RS: And it also shows that it’s a complex problem. Yes, you have maybe, as you say, 12 months; we probably have, what, some people think 12 years, or 25 years to save the whole planet. So obviously, one has to deal with complexity with some efficiency and expediency. But I think the takeaway from your movie is, yes, it’s important to save the Sea of Cortez; it’s important to save the vaquita. But—but it has to be done in a comprehensive, serious way. It can’t just be talk. You know, and it’s not going to be just round up the existing 15 and put them in San Diego in Sea World.
RL: No—oh my God, no.
RS: Right? I mean, you could save a few of them that way, but you would deform them. And by the way, in that scene—and you’re right, it wasn’t Sea Shepherd, it was another but well-intentioned outfit. And what I thought was so sad was they would destroy—even if they had managed to keep that animal alive, they had turned that sanctuary into Sea World. Because they were all standing there in their shorts, warding the poor animal off; the animal was clearly going crazy, being in this new environment. Could not survive, should not be in a marine zoo, you know, and—and died. And I want to pay tribute to you as a filmmaker. It would have been easy to leave that scene out. You know, because that was a cautionary tale to the environmentalists that the best of intentions can go awry.
RL: Of course, of course. Well I think that, you know, the reason we showed it as it is—and it was, it was very pure—was because people needed to understand exactly what you said: the best intentions, they can go wrong. These were the most experienced scientists in the world, the best of the best, drawn from all countries around the world, who have any experience with capturing whales or dolphins. The best of the best were there on the ground. They did what they could, but it failed. This small sea pen that you see in the film was a temporary holding place. And there was a very large sanctuary that was to be built right next to it, you know, about a mile long, like very big. But the problem was, if you put an animal that you’ve just captured right away in such a big sanctuary, if anything goes wrong with the animal, you can never get to it fast enough to help it. With medicine, or give it any medical attention. That’s why they needed to keep it in a small place. And that small place, unfortunately—you know, it looks horrifying from the outside. You know, it was about 30 feet in diameter, I would say; you know, a circular—
RS: Were you there?
RL: I filmed the whole thing. I was holding the camera. I did everything. It was the most shocking and most difficult scene to shoot in my life, but I don’t want to discourage people—you know, “I can’t see an animal die,” or something. Yes, you know, it will die. But for me, it’s about the spirit and the hope that these people who are trying to save it—Earth League International, Sea Shepherd, VaquitaCPR—the journalists, the fishermen—they are putting their lives on the line, like we did as filmmakers as well, to save this place. Not just the vaquita, but like the entire ocean. And these are heroic people who are out there fighting on the front lines to make a difference. And these heroes are unknown heroes. Nobody knows about these things happening, and these people going out to risk so much. And I think they are my heroes, and they inspire me to do what I do—films—and go out there and talk about it and everything.
RS: But there is also the hubris of the well intentioned. And in that scene, whether you intended it or not—and I think in terms of artistic integrity, it’s important that it’s in there as a caution.
RL: Of course.
RS: Because, you know—
RL: It had to be in there. The film would have collapsed without that scene.
RS: Yeah, and lots of things have been done. First of all, it’s suggested, a simplistic solution—let’s just gather up these 15, put them in some place. Well, that wasn’t going to work. You point that out. But also it was a denial of the basic enterprise. You were saving a species by basically imprisoning it.
RL: Yeah. Horrible, a horrible thought. But that’s what happens when you wait too long. That’s what happens when you try something radical. When you realize this species is dying within a year. There’s 30 left; you know, back then there were 30 left. And if we don’t do something radical, they’re going to disappear forever. We have to look for solutions way before. Like, if 10 years ago, we had 500 vaquitas—if then 500 would have been a low enough number, they could have been saved in many different ways. But nobody cared, because there were still 500. Nobody looked at the problem.
So this is the most—that’s why this film, for me, is such a symbol of what’s happening around the world with many other species. You know, the rhinos and the tigers and the pangolins and the jaguars. They’re all vanishing because of money and greed. And people are not aware that this is even happening. And that’s why I’m so emotional about this, because this is–you know, I’m not emotional about drugs or weapons, but I am emotional when it gets to the same syndicates, the same criminals, actively attacking our earth, and taking these beautiful creatures for money and greed to turn them into, like, dollars. You know, and—and nobody’s caring about it. Nobody’s outraged about it. And you know, within 10 years, we will lose so many species on our planet because people focus on other issues. And I think we need to focus on these issues, where time is running out.
RS: Well, if we’ve got any chance of saving the vaquitas, it’s because of, I think, really because of this film.
RL: Thank you.
RS: Go check it out. Richard Ladkani. And as he makes the point, yes, this is an important species that should be saved. But really, we’re talking about the most bountiful, important, really, seascape in the world, the Sea of Cortez, that is at risk for the same forces trying to rape the area with these huge nets. That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” I want to thank the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for sponsoring our space here, making it available. For Sebastian Grubaugh for being the engineer who puts it together. For Joshua Scheer who is the producer of “Scheer Intelligence.” And at KCRW, which hosts these shows, Christopher Ho carries us every week and gets this out to the world, so thank him. And we’ll be back next week with another edition of “Scheer Intelligence.”