Back in 2017 I had the rare opportunity to bear witness to the process of extinction. I was part of a documentary film crew tasked with gathering footage of the effort to capture the last remaining vaquita porpoises in the Northern Gulf of California. The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise, and is endemic to the warm, shallow waters in the Northernmost portion of the Gulf of California – right near the delta of the Colorado River. Although it has not yet gone extinct, it is one of the most endangered species on the planet, with likely fewer than 10 individuals remaining.
My good friend and fellow filmmaker Sean Bogle came to me in 2015 with an idea for a documentary about this enigmatic species. Little did I know that by initiating this project, we were taking a deep dive into the underworld of organized crime. As we began talking with local fisherman, biologists, activists and politicians, it became clear that the vaquita’s precipitous decline was caused by the international market for illegal wildlife products. A large endangered fish called the totoaba, also endemic to the Northern Gulf of California, was being harvested illegally for it’s unusually large swim bladder, and the gillnets used to harvest the Totoaba were entangling and killing vaquita. These totoaba swim bladders, we learned, could fetch tens of thousands of dollars in certain parts of China.
The small fishing community of San Felipe, which is just a five hour drive from San Diego, had become a hotbed of activity for the Mexican drug cartels, who realized early on that there were vast sums of money to be made from selling Totoaba swim bladders. Just like many other border towns in Mexico, San Felipe is ruled by these powerful cartels, making the Mexican government’s ban on Totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets impossible to enforce.
By the time over 60 marine scientists and wildlife veterinarians descended on San Felipe in 2017 with the goal of capturing the last remaining vaquita, establishing a captive population for the species was universally viewed by the scientific community as the last remaining option for preventing extinction. Our documentary, which had begun as a small independant project, …….