17577737_1640792005936049_1480388594_nFellow producer Sean Bogle and myself recently spent 10 days in the upper Gulf of California where tensions over fishing restrictions imposed by the Mexican government have begun to erupt.  Just a few days before we departed violence broke out on the streets of El Golfo de Santa Clara in an incident where a group of angry fisherman burned numerous government vehicles.

Just a few days ago, a demonstration took place in San Felipe, the larger of the two towns impacted by fishing restrictions, in which a fishing boat was set fire, and paraded through the center of town.  This took place several days after an evening confrontation occurred between illegal totoaba fisherman and Mexican Navy officials.  This incident occurred when the Mexican Navy attempted to stop an illegal fishing boat as it came in to dock right near the center of town, and the fisherman attempted to bring their boat in despite the Navy presence.  A Facebook video captured by an onlooker of the scene shows shots being fired, and a truck (presumably belonging to one of the fisherman) speeding off in the wrong direction right through the center of town.

These incidents demonstrate a new level of intensity in the discontent among the fisherman of the upper gulf.  No longer are fisherman complaining about the corrupt and unfair government compensation program, or the failure of the government to develop alternative fishing methods.  Many of these fisherman are not even hiding the fact that they plan on continuing to fish illegally – they feel emboldened to go out and fish in utter disregard for the Mexican Navy officials attempting to enforce the gillnet ban.

The result of this is, by all accounts, illegal totoaba fishing is more rampant than ever before.  During the short period of time that we were in the upper Gulf, three dead vaquitas were recovered in the region.  March 2016 also saw the recovery of three dead vaquitas, but it wasn’t until very recently with the release of new data from the remote acoustic monitoring program for the vaquita, that we learned the true impact of last year’s illegal totoaba fishing season – about 30 vaquitas were lost, amounting to half the population.  If the recovery of three dead vaquitas equates to an actual mortality of about 30 individuals as it did last year – the vaquita could very well be extinct already.

The mood among supporters of vaquita conservation efforts is extremely glum.  Although very few people told us that they were giving up on the recovery effort, everyone now admits that the chance of success is extremely low.

Now this trip to the upper gulf was very different for us than any previous excursion.  Usually our only goal is to document what’s going on, but this time we were attempting to directly influence the outcome of the situation.  We traveled to San Felipe with a plan to screen our new half hour cut of the documentary, in an attempt to create a more open dialogue within the community about the current situation.  These screenings were organized in collaboration with the San Diego Zoo’s Ridge to Reef Initiative.

Post-screening community discussion at Casa de la Cultura in San Felipe.

Post-screening community discussion at Casa de la Cultura in San Felipe. Photo by Samantha Young, San Diego Zoo Global.

Our first screening in San Felipe was open to the public and was followed by a discussion session designed to both provide us feedback on the film, and to instigate discussion among local residents with differing view points.  Following this initial screening event, we took our film into the San Felipe school system for a series of screenings at local high schools and middle schools.  This is where we felt we were able to have the most dramatic impact – hundreds of school kids in San Felipe were exposed to the message in our film, many of whom have parents who participate in the illegal totoaba fishery.

We’ll probably never know the true extent of the impact that these community screenings had on the community of San Felipe, but we strongly feel that reaching out to local students with this message was crucially important.

Screening our film at a local high school in San Felipe.

Screening our film at a local high school in San Felipe. Photo by Samantha Young, San Diego Zoo Global.

While it’s impossible to predict what may happen in the world of vaquita conservation in the coming months, our promise to you is that we will be there to document the situation as it plays out.  In the meantime we’ll be organizing more screenings of our new half hour version of Souls of the Vermilion Sea in both Mexico and the US – so keep you eye on this website and our Facebook page for the film to get updates.  If you’d like to bring the film to the community where you live – give us a shout!

Souls of the Vermilion Sea producer Matt Podolsky






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