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INTERVIEW: Dr. Cynthia Smith On "Sea Of Shadows," The Harrowing Rescue Efforts To Save The Vaquita From Extinction, And More

Nicole Barylski

The vaquita is the world's smallest and most elusive whale. (Photo: National Geographic)

As of July 2019, it was estimated that at most 19 vaquita porpoise - the most elusive and endangered whale species on Earth - remain. In the Sea of Cortez, the vaquita's rapid decline is a result of the poaching of extremely lucrative totoaba fish and the fishermen's deadly methods.

On Friday, August 16, Hamptons International Film Festival will screen Richard Ladkani's Sea of Shadows, a National Geographic documentary that exposes the fight to save the most endangered marine mammal and the unique obstacles the vaquita faces, which include government corruption, an international crime syndicate that spans from Mexico to China, and more.

We recently caught up with one of the film's subjects, Dr. Cynthia Smith, to learn more about rescue efforts, the vaquita's current status, and more.

You're the Vaquita CPR program manager. Could you please speak a bit about the organization's goal?

CS: Vaquita CPR is a consortium of several organizations. There are 22 organizations from nine countries that came together for the vaquita conservation, specifically, for a rescue effort. So, I actually work for the National Marine Mammal Foundation. I'm the Executive Director and I was asked to lead that consortium by the Mexican government. So, we are still together and still doing as much as we can to impact positively conservation actions for the vaquita.

When did you first learn about the issue with vaquitas?

CS: At least a decade ago, when the species was first discovered in the late 50s. Not a lot was known about them. Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho has been studying them, really, for the last few decades, as well as Dr. Barbara Taylor. The two of them have, in our community, become the world's experts - one's based in Mexico, one's based in the United States. It was really the two of them that was making sure that they were grabbing the attention of the rest of the marine mammal community about a decade ago, as they were monitoring the population, studying the population, and realizing that the population was in decline.

Could you speak a bit about when you first arrived at the Sea of Cortez to take on the rescue mission?

CS: I think the only thing that may not come through strongly in the film, that's just important background is that, the species was starting to climb, like I said, it was a decade ago that the whole community, marine mammal communities, became aware and was starting to figure out how to get involved. At the time, it was a sustainable fishing issue, where it was that there were the animals were drowning, in what was at the time legal fishing nets, and that has now evolved into an illegal fishery, as the Mexican government put actions in place to protect the vaquita, and made it illegal to fish within their habitat, that's when it became an illegal fishery, and then entered the drug cartel.

There have been many NGOs that have been in and out of San Felipe Bay and off of Santa Clara. But the rescue effort wasn't fully explored until relatively late in the game. So, it wasn't until the population got down to less than 100 that CIRVA, who is the International Committee for the Recovery of Vaquita, that was assembled by the Mexican government. It wasn't until then that CIRVA then really fully explored a rescue effort and could removing the animal from a dangerous situation, a dangerous habitat, and move them into a safe haven, a sanctuary environment, would that be an option that could actually buy us all more time to then put effective measures in place to make their habitat safe for them again? It was about 2015, where we started really exploring the idea. In 2016, we put the plan together and we were working with CIRVA on how to do that. Then, it was 2017 when we were asked as a consortium to go attempt a rescue effort.

We were in country, our international team was in country, beginning that summer, as we were getting everything in place and building our sanctuary and creating those connections with the local community and getting them involved. In October, and into early November of 2017, is when we actually were in the Sea of Cortez with our international rescue team attempting to rescue the vaquita.

You discuss a bit in the film that some animals just can't accept human care, and unfortunately, the first vaquita that you ended up saving didn't make it. So where do you go from there?

CS: There was actually one other female that we caught prior that survived. She was a younger female and we brought her in, and she just never settled down to where we thought it was responsible to keep moving forward. So we released her. So we had that experience and then obviously the experience with the older female, she was actually quite old. She looked great, until she didn't and then we had to do the emergency release, and then we lost her.

So where do we go from here? With vaquitas, that means there's that much more urgency, that much more pressure that needs to be placed on the international government, the governments of Mexico, China and the United States - to really work together to make sure that from a government perspective, we're doing everything we can to enforce the region, to make sure illegal activity isn't happening, as well as support folks that are on the front lines right now, which are Earth League International, who are trying to disrupt that supply chain, which is our best shot really trying to solve the issue. And, also with Sea Shepherd pulling nets. That is where we're going with the vaquita.

But, it's a really important point - of course we had to try the rescue operation. It was so critically important to try, but we just were there when there were so few animals. You don't have time to get to know the animals the way you really want to before you attempt something like that. A really important thing for where we going in the future, with other species, is we have to be willing to explore these really bold options earlier in the process instead of at the end, the final hour.

When the government stepped in and made it illegal to fish within the vaquita habitat, did that impact the vaquita at all? Or was it too late at that point?

CS: It was pretty late. Actually, it was late, but it could have created a positive change if it had been enforced. That's where it broke down. They've made it illegal and they got almost all the way there, but then without enforcing that ban and without making the laws robust enough that you can actually prosecute people for ignoring the ban, and then fishing in the vaquita refuge, there's not quite enough right now behind the ban to make it effective. There's a lot of room for improvement and actual action, if the ban was just implemented in the way that everybody thought it was going to be.

Prior to Sea of Shadows, vaquitas were so rare that they had actually never been filmed before. What did it mean to be able to capture footage of the most endangered marine mammal?

CS: That, to me, was such an important part of the project's outcome and the fact that this is a species that is so rapidly approaching extinction. Most people that I've encountered don't know anything about them, and so to let them slip away without capturing for all of the future generations that documentation, that beautiful documentation of the animals and being up close and personal with them. I do think that's important, so that we can create this treasure box, basically, of not just vaquitas, but the other endangered species that we are so close to losing. At least we have this experience, this footage, that will be able to hopefully motivate and inspire others to get involved and to prevent this from happening again.

What's the current status of the vaquita?

CS: Not good. There was a paper that was actually published on July 31 by Armando Jaramillo-Legorreta, and it's the new population estimate. They're saying that they think there's at most 19, so the number's still kind of hovering in the same place. The most we were at was 22 and now we're at 19. That was based on science that was done to the end of 2018.

A really important point is is that number so low that it's a lost cause? We thought a lot about that, and when are we going to reach that point? For me, if you have any animal out there that is trying to face these forces and is under the pressure like this of an illegal fishery and organized crime, you should always keep trying, even if there's only one animal out there. Fortunately, we know from the genetic scientists that are studying the DNA of the vaquita that it still isn't too late to bring them back. The genetic strength exists, even with such a small population, if you can just remove the threat to the animals, they actually could still come back and thrive. That's a really important thing, a message to get across. Even only there are only a few, there's so many reasons that we cannot give up on them. They're having babies, their genetic strength is there. We just have to remove the threat and we don't have another second to wait.

From a conservation standpoint, what do you hope Sea of Shadows accomplishes?

CS: From a conservation standpoint, I think it's already changed the game. Look what the power of film can do in terms of making a completely rare and unknown species, something that the whole world is now talking about. We needed something like this, we needed a game changer, so that we could grab the attention of the general public, and really make them aware of the issues, how serious it is, and not just fight for the vaquita, but make sure everybody understands that she's a symbol of what's happening on the planet. We're in a mass extinction event. So, we can't just fight for her, we have to fight for all of the animals that are in a similar position and recognize that this is a human induced mass extinction event. We can continue to use the power of film to get these messages across and have people understand what's happening, and then make decisions about what they can do to actually make things better, get involved, use their intelligence and their heart to help us turn this around, then we actually have a fighting chance.

Sea of Shadows is already doing what we thought it was going to do. I think we're at just the beginning of the ripple effects that we're already seeing it have. We just need to make sure as many people as possible go to see the film and join the cause.

What impact does the vaquita have on the Sea of Cortiz?

CS: Any animal, every single animal, every single plant, and human, we're all, every one of us, we're all critical components to the ecosystem. It's really this interconnected system, the ecosystem, this web of life. When you start pulling things out of it, from either the species are declining, or maybe they go extinct, the ecosystem falters, the system starts to break down, and then all of it is at risk. It's not just about losing the vaquita, it's about losing a key component to this alive, living, breathing system that we as humans depend on. We're part of it, and so if we start to lose components of ecosystems, which we are - it's where we're at today, we're starting to see this unraveling of ecosystem health, that will absolutely and is already impacting the humans that rely on the health of those ecosystems, which feeds right into the health of the planet and the health of our own species.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

CS: To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.com or www.vaquitacpr.org. We really need support to continue and we also highlight what our partners are doing to help solve the problem.

Sea of Shadows will screen at Gurney's Montauk on Friday, August 16. The evening will start with a Sunset Reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by an Outdoor Film Screening at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 for current HIFF Members.

Gurney's Montauk is located at 290 Old Montauk Highway in Montauk. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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