Outdoors Blog

Boise filmmaker joins fight to save ‘panda of the sea’

The vaquita is nearly extinct in the northern Gulf of California.
The vaquita is nearly extinct in the northern Gulf of California. Courtesy of Wild Lens

Matthew Podolsky studied environmental science and cinema at Ithaca College in New York. He began his career as a field biologist but during a stint working on a California condor project in Arizona for the Peregrine Fund he decided he wanted to use film to spotlight conservation issues. He began work on a condor film that became “Scavenger Hunt” — and finished it after moving to Boise to work in the condor breeding program at the World Center for Birds of Prey. After two years, he quit his job and co-founded Wild Lens, the film company for which he serves as president of the board of directors and producer.

Since then, Wild Lens has received acclaim for its film “Bluebird Man,” about a man who helped the bluebird population recover on the Idaho/Oregon border, and taken on a new project: chronicling the stunning decline of the vaquita, a marine mammal that is nearing extinction in Mexico’s upper Gulf of California. The project’s working title is “Souls of the Vermilion Sea.”

The vaquita project started as one of the short films Wild Lens produces for clients but quickly became a much larger effort. The client was Save the Whales. At last count, there are only 30 vaquitas left in the world.

“One of our producers, Sean Bogle, started researching this issue ... and got super engrossed in it and six months later he came to our board and pitched to us that this should be our next big project,” Podolsky said. “That was about two years ago. And now we’re embedded in this thing and it’s all we can think about.”

Wild Lens, which operates through fund raising, doesn’t have an estimated completion for the feature-length documentary on the vaquita. But a 30-minute version that focuses on the fishing villages at the heart of the vaquita story will debut at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Egyptian Theatre as part of the Les Bois Film Festival. The screening is free and tickets aren’t required. There will be a Q&A about the film and conservation efforts after the screening.

I met with Podolsky this week to discuss the vaquita project and his passion for conservation filmmaking. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

[Related: The New York Times featured the plight of the vaquita earlier this week]

▪  Did you want to be a biologist? A filmmaker? Or both? Podolsky said that he worked some summer and part-time jobs in field biology and knew he wanted to travel and do that after college. His focus as a filmmaker was on screenwriting. “But I knew that I never wanted to live in L.A.,” he said. “To ‘make it’ as a screenwriter, you kind of have to live in L.A. That might be different now, 15 years later, but at the time that was what all my colleagues were doing. I just knew I had no interest in that.” His job in Arizona was the “Holy Grail” of field work, he said — a full-time job with benefits. But he wasn’t ready for something that permanent and decided he wanted to tell the condor’s story through film, and the only way to get that done would be to do it himself. “The whole reason we needed to manage that population was because of lead poisoning,” he said. “There’s no other reason. ... It became extremely frustrating to me that I knew this but despite the fact that the California condor was a very high-profile species ... nobody knows that the birds are dying from lead poisoning and that the lead is coming from spent ammunition and there’s a very easy solution. We just need to convince hunters to use a different kind of ammunition. ... If every hunter within the range of the California condor tomorrow stopped using lead ammunition, the population would be self-sustaining, at least in Arizona and Utah. ... This is the ultimate goal we’ve been striving for since the ’80s. We could be there if we could just eliminate this one thing. But you’ve got these lobbying groups for the lead industry and ammunition industry saying the same thing for 10 years. The first paper published indicating it was lead poisoning was in 2006. Since then, the message from the NRA and National Shooting Sports Foundation has not changed: ‘Deny the science, deny the science, the lead is coming from somewhere else.’ That’s frustrating. That’s really what inspired me to start that film project, which snowballed into this whole organization.”

▪  Podolsky sees parallels between the condor and vaquita. “If you could get all gillnets out of this relatively small region tomorrow, the vaquita would be absolutely 100 percent fine. It doesn’t matter that there’s only 30 of them. They’ve done some interesting genetic research. (The vaquita) has undergone a population bottleneck somewhere in its evolutionary history. Generally when a mammal gets below 50 you start getting very concerned about the viability of that population. Folks aren’t super concerned about that with the vaquita. ... When you delve deeper into how would you realistically get the gillnets out of this area, I still don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t know if it’s possible. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

▪  About the time Wild Lens began filming, Mexico announced it was banning gillnets in the vaquita’s territory. It was a celebrated moment, Podolsky said — but vaquita numbers have declined even faster since the announcement. “From 2011 to 2015, the average rate of decline was around 32 percent per year, which is a lot and scary,” he said. “It’s so rapid it’s just unbelievable. The first large-scale survey in the late ’90s estimated there were around 600 individuals. And now we’re at 30. ... The primary thing that’s driving the vaquitas’ decline right now is the swim bladder of the totoaba is worth tens of thousands of dollars in China.” The gillnets used for previously legal fishing, to catch shrimp and other sea creatures, were smaller. They killed vaquitas, but not at the same rate as the larger gillnets used for the totoaba — an endangered species that is illegal to catch. With fishermen losing their livelihoods to the gillnet ban, Podolsky said, even more are fishing for totoaba. “The rate of decline since the ban was implemented is 50 percent,” he said. The totoaba and vaquita primarily share the same waters in March and April. “It became the only economically viable fishery in the region,” Podolsky said. “It’s very easy to not get caught. There was a pretty substantial military presence in this tiny little fishing village at that time of year (last year) and I’m sure there is right now. While we were there, the Mexican government sent 600 extra troops to this tiny fishing village. There’s helicopters going over. There’s a huge Navy base. But fishermen are going out at night, launching these small boats. It’s a relatively small area, but it’s still an area roughly the size of Connecticut. They’re invisible. ... Ultimately, it just feels impossible to stop this illegal trade.”

▪  Podolsky plans to film in China, too. He’s been told that totoaba swim bladders have become a black-market item and shopkeepers are holding onto some with the expectation that the supply will dry up and they’ll be worth even more. “It’s a bizarre situation,” he said. “All these fishermen in Mexico are going nuts, so focused on fishing the totoaba and getting these swim bladders, but the market in China for this product is actually flooded. At a certain point, it’s going to catch up to them. The totoaba is not going to go extinct. The reason is, there is a totoaba hatchery in Ensenada that releases tens of thousands into the gulf every single year.”

▪  Wild Lens is focusing on two fishing villages in particular, San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara. A third town, Puerto Penasco, is just outside the vaquita’s range. “All three of these towns were founded in the 1920s based on the totoaba fishery,” Podolsky said. “This has been happening for a century. These towns literally would not exist if it wasn’t for the demand for the totoaba swim bladder in China. In 1975, it became illegal to fish totoaba and it’s been illegal since then. ... It really wasn’t until the last 10 years or so that this demand for the totoaba swim bladder started to re-emerge with a vengeance in China. It’s a health product and food. They make soups out of it. It is given as a traditional gift to women who have just given birth as a postpartum health aid. The original source of the swim bladder demand came from a closely related species native to the coast of southeastern China, the bahaba, which has a similarly large swim bladder. ... The one in China is commercially extinct.”

▪  Wild Lens plans to go to Mexico later this month to screen its film in the three villages most affected by the vaquita controversy. “Just try to get people talking to each other,” Podolsky said of the goal. “The people who actually want to save the vaquita are demonized by the rest of the fishing community and there’s no communication. ... We also want feedback on the film. We want buy-in from the people who are a part of this community.”

▪  What’s unique about the vaquita? “The vaquita wasn’t even known to scientists until the 1950s,” Podolsky said. “It’s actually the world’s smallest species of cetacean, which includes all whales, dolphins and porpoises. It’s about 5 feet long when full grown. It has very distinctive facial markings, eye rings and a lip patch that have led to some people coining the term ‘panda of the Sea.’ There’s no other species that closely resembles a vaquita.” The ecosystem that the vaquita calls home focuses on the Colorado River delta, where the water is shallow, warm and cloudy with strong tides.

▪  Why the vaquita project? “It’s such a fascinating story. Honestly, I think part of it comes from the fact I spent so much time working with California condors and trying to tell the story of the California condors. For the condor, there were only 22 individuals. It was literally on the brink of extinction. If you talk to any condor biologist involved at that time, they’ll tell you: ‘We thought there was no chance. We were not going to give up, but we were convinced we were dealing with a very, very low probability of success.’ And yet it worked. With the vaquita, especially right now with the new population survey, we’re at that moment. The vaquita is going through an extinction crisis right now. In two years, it’s either going to be extinct or there will be a successful captive-breeding program. That was the situation for the California condor in 1981. ... To us, it feels like this unique opportunity to document a species as it goes through an extinction crisis. ... If they manage to save them, it would be unbelievable. We’re experimenting with a different style of storytelling. We have no idea what the outcome to this story will be. ... Another reason why we decided to jump on board with this project is there’s nobody else documenting it. Just in the past year, it started to get some mainstream media coverage in the U.S. and Mexico.”

▪  How can this film project help the vaquita? “That’s the central question we’ve been coming back to over and over since we started this. ... We really want to create a community discussion (in Mexico) about what’s going on, what solutions there are that could come from within the community. That’s the most direct way we could have an impact. That’s more tangible than saying a million people in the U.S. are going to watch our film and are going to take some action. We have the potential to really directly impact what’s going on. It’s not advocacy in the traditional sense. We’re not doing this, this and this to save the vaquita. It’s: ‘Here’s what it looks like from our perspective. Let’s have a discussion about this. Talk to each other, please.’ ”

▪  Do you think the vaquita will survive? “It feels right now like the probability of success is low. I certainly haven’t given up hope. The fact that they finally have reached this stage where they’re saying we need to bring vaquitas into (a protected area for breeding) is super hopeful. If they came out and said, ‘No, we need to double-down our efforts on the gillnet ban,’ I would give up. Not only did it not work, it backfired and made it worse.”

▪  For you, why is the vaquita worth saving? “I could say I believe every species has inherent value separate from mankind. I do believe that, but I don’t think that’s the best argument to make in defense of the vaquita. Realistically, is the vaquita a keystone species in that ecosystem? Probably not. If it was, that ecosystem would already be seeing detrimental effects. For me, looking at this, and looking at the story we’re attempting to tell, this is sort of like a warning sign of what’s to come. Do we want to see this? Do we want to see what happened to the vaquita happen over and over and over again with lots of other species? Because that’s where we’re headed unless something really dramatic on a large, global perspective changes. The vaquita is not the only species that is dying in these gillnets, in this specific region even. Every single day on Facebook, you see humpback whales and dolphins and every other species of marine mammal that lives in that area also getting entangled and dying in gillnets. ... There’s a lot to be said for narrowing in on a specific issue that is connected to the larger global issue. That’s instructive, regardless of where you live, even if you live here in Idaho where the vaquita is a thousand miles away.”