"Cocaine of the sea" — the illegal fish trade of the Mexican cartel and Chinese mafia
"Sea of Shadows" is a documentary you can't afford to miss.
- "Sea of Shadows" tells the story of an illegal fish trade between the Mexican cartel and Chinese mafia.
- The fish bladders, bought for $5,000 from local fisherman, are sold in China for over $100,000 to make an unproven medicine.
- Director Richard Ladkani talks about the intensity and danger of making this film, as well as the hopeful ending.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the totoaba bladder is believed to cure arthritis. As with much of TCM, the claim is unproven and inevitably creates more harm than good. An entire ecosystem is on the verge of collapse thanks to the illegal bladder trade between the Mexican cartel and Chinese businessmen.
While the totoaba are rapidly declining in numbers—their only home is in the Sea of Cortez, the body of water that separates Baja California with mainland Mexico—the illegal fishing nets local fishermen use are killing everything else: turtles, sharks, and the focus of "Sea of Shadows," the vaquita. There are only believed to be 15 or so of these small porpoises left in existence.
As director and cinematographer, Richard Ladkani, told me earlier this week, there is hope as six vaquitas (including babies) were recently spotted. Since he filmed "Jane's Journey," an intimate portrait of English primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, Ladkani has focused on environmentally relevant works. His last film, "The Ivory Game," helped make the ivory trade between Africa and China illegal. As you'll see while watching his incredible new National Geographic documentary, his film might help save an ecosystem "just five hours drive from Los Angeles."
But nothing is a given. At the end of our talk, Ladkani asked me to mention Earth League International and Sea Shepherd, the two organizations driving the activism in the Sea of Cortez. "Sea of Shadows" is heartbreaking and inspiring, frightening and ambitious. Most importantly, it's a reminder that people care about the fate of this planet and all the animals that reside here. In a time when most environmental news informs us that we're another step closer to a precipice, this film reminds us of the necessity of banding together and fighting for what's best for all of us.
Sea of Shadows Official Trailer | National Geographic
Derek: Congratulations on "Sea of Shadows." And thank you for keeping me up all night.
Richard: I tell people to buckle up before the movie starts.
Derek: I would love to know how you became interested in this topic.
Richard: In general, I'm interested in films with impact and a mission behind them. That started with Jane Goodall, who I was lucky enough to follow around the world about 10 years ago while shooting a film called "Jane's Journey." She inspired me to look at the natural world in a different way and understand that our world is in peril and is really falling apart.
"The Ivory Game" was the first result of her inspiration. Then came "Sea of Shadows," which was brought to us by Leonardo DiCaprio, who was our executive producer on my previous film. He thought "The Ivory Game" was super successful on how we collaborated and how a movie can have such a huge impact, because it changed the law in China and made dealing with ivory illegal.
Two months after the movie came out, they invited us to China to screen the film at the Beijing Film Festival. That was such a big impact, that you can change the government's way of thinking about the world, even a Chinese government on top of that. We were thinking about the next story and Leonardo suggested something on the vaquita because he deeply cared about a small whale that nobody has ever heard about, including myself. He had just met with a Mexican president and was deeply involved in this rescue effort of scientists to save the vaquita.
Derek: While the film is focused on the totoaba and vaquita, you also mention that fishing them can collapse an entire ecosystem. Is that whole area going to be infertile if they continue this trade?
Richard: Absolutely. If the vaquita goes extinct, which we are trying everything in our power to impact, we'll feel we had a little part for not allowing that to happen. But if it happens, it will mean that the cartel is going to completely take over the area. The attention, the focus, the spotlight that it has right now is because of the vaquita; it is such a symbolic animal and it's been highly exposed. If the vaquita goes extinct, the NGOs will be removed from the area. They will move onto a new war somewhere, maybe in Peru or South Africa.
Then what will happen is the cartel is going to 100% take over the Sea of Cortez. All the fishermen are going to be pressured to go out for the totoaba. You've seen how they do it. They dropped thousands of gill nets, walls of death that kill everything just to get to that final totoaba. They will kill everything and it's all tossed away. All the sharks, the turtles, everything will disappear just because they're going for that totoaba.
Director Richard Ladkani attends the New York premiere of National Geographic Documentary Films, "Sea of Shadows," at the Metrograph on July 9, 2019.
Photo by Heidi Gutman/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
Derek: An ecosystem might collapse half a world away because of a fish bladder that supposedly cures arthritis, with no scientific proof whatsoever. Did you do any research on TCM for the film?
Richard: Yes, of course. We even filmed in China for a month. The reason we didn't include that in the film was because we realized that there was no demand; it is already illegal to trade totoaba there. Every scientist we talked to said it's not proven Western science. They couldn't find any proof that it has any power at all. But then we realized that it would take a whole generation or a campaign to change the minds of the Chinese. The vaquita maybe has 12 months to live.
It will never be solved in China. There is nothing we can do in China that will stop this trade in time. In other cases, like with the elephants, it was 10 years to extinction. We had the time to go there. But in this case, it just didn't make any sense. There was a whole half-hour worth of dramatic events in China, but we took it all out because we wanted people to focus on where the solution is, which is in Mexico.
Derek: Speaking of dramatic events, I love how you focus both on the media aspect of the trade and the race against the cartel. There were some failures too; I'm glad you highlighted them. How did your crew emotionally deal with making this film?
Richard: It was like a roller coaster ride. The dramatic scenes that happened with the vaquita were unthinkable. I was very close with the scientists, with Cynthia Smith; we became friends and she really trusted us. By the end they gave us full access. Living through that traumatic scenes as the moments unfold was just beyond belief. It was really tough for us to be there. I tried to be as invisible as possible and stay out of their way.
At the same time, this film became more and more dangerous every week that we were on location. It was a big responsibility to keep the team safe and to keep going and pushing. Our production company provided a full security budget for us. We had very professional bodyguards that know what they're doing, people that we can trust who are not bought by the cartel or corrupt police. It was like a big military operation to get this film made without anybody getting shot or kidnapped.
Derek: There was the scene when you were at the beach and the fisherman had taken over the Navy vessel. It reminded me a little bit of "Restrepo," from the camera crew perspective: You're in the middle of a war, you're getting rocks thrown at you, and you're getting shot at. Even though you had bodyguards, there was a lot of personal danger.
Richard: It was the most dangerous moment of the entire production. It was also the worst case scenario. In all the planning that went into the film, we always said this is what we need to avoid—a flash mob of people trying to come at us from all sides. We were just trying to get out of it alive and keep everyone safe, but at the same time it was also the challenge of actually capturing that moment and everything that came with it and not stop shooting. Even though I was running for my life, I kept the camera rolling on my shoulder and made sure that that red light was on. If you stop shooting, then you may also lose that one opportunity to really get the audience to understand what these people are going through.
Riots break out in San Felipe as fishermen protest the arrests of totoaba poachers.
Derek: You might not have been worried about framing, but when you see a rock fly by three feet from your feet, you know exactly what's happening.
Richard: Of course. We were hiding behind cars and everything, so I knew what was happening. There was fear, but there was also control in the way of staying focused. What scared me the most was when shots started to appear. We were hearing gunfire, and I didn't know who was shooting at who because we weren't able to see. Did the cartel open fire on us? Is it the Navy shooting at them or in the air? I heard bullets ricocheting off walls around us; that meant that they are firing not in the air but actually at us.
There's stuff that is not in the film, when we got threatened by the cartel right after because they had exposed our identities. They had photographed us, then they followed us home. Then we got direct threats from Oscar Parra. Actually, he requested a meeting with me the following night and said I had to come alone. And I was like, "No, I don't think so."
Derek: I wouldn't have taken that meeting either. There's also a moment where the drone gets shot down. I've known about Sea Shepherd for a long time; they do amazing work. When you see the crew members, they look like a bunch of young kids, but they have to be pretty tough to do that job.
Richard: They are amazing. The average age on ship was 22 and that was just insane, but they're all fired up. They're all activists and wanted to sign up for this battle of the Sea of Cortez. They're very inspiring people. It was always great to be on the ship. I really admire them.
Derek: One of the stories in the film involves the Mexican Navy and how they go from giving you platitudes, then later you're riding along with the Navy. Was it the media pressure that made them change?
Richard: It was actually Carlos Loret de Mola who kept pressuring them: "Show me how you're fighting this war, how you want to win." We were lucky because we were following Carlos; we were sort of his team so they didn't question who we are. We had access to all the operations. But as you see, you think there's something off here: There's all this presence but somehow they're always in the wrong place at the wrong time. They even release the prisoners in the end.
It was after the riots that I confronted the Vice Admiral and asked him, "What the hell is going on? How can you not get on top of that situation?" That's when he told me to stop filming. Then he told me, "Richard, they know where my daughter goes to school, they know where we live, they know the name of my wife, and they will first come for my daughter and kidnap her. Then they will kill her, my wife, and then they will come from me. That's why I'm not getting in their way."
Derek: Do you have any updates since the film has been completed?
Richard: Yes, we're constantly in touch with everybody. Earth League International has put together a new mission to go back in and monitor the situation. Because the totoaba season is just beginning, the cartel is moving in. They have sent out Mexican and Chinese investigators to monitor the trafficking. The good news is that they're dispatching an additional 600 troops to the area and they have committed 14 warships to protect the vaquita refuge.
The president visited the region and started talking about the vaquitas, that they need to save them and offer solutions for all the fishermen. So we are upbeat. Also, six vaquitas have been spotted in early October; some of them are babies, which is fantastic news. It shows us that they're still there and it's not too late.
Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.
- Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
- The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
- The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.
- Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
- These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
- The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
What are they?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDA0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTM1ODc0Mn0.NH33LuauIo__sUBi4tvhwxDcsvhflDFD-Nhx9FjlSNk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=148%2C0%2C149%2C0&height=700" id="cec96" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="acb78abe2ab46a17e419ad30906751d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artist's impression of the Kordylewski cloud in the night sky (with its brightness greatly enhanced) at the time of the observations.
G. Horváth<p>The<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kordylewski_cloud" target="_blank"> Kordylewski clouds</a> are two dust clouds first observed by Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in 1961. They are situated at two of the <a href="https://www.space.com/30302-lagrange-points.html" target="_blank">Lagrange points</a> in Earth's orbit. These points are locations where the gravity of two objects, such as the Earth and the Moon or a planet and the Sun, equals the centripetal required to orbit the objects while staying in the same relative position. There are five of these spots between the Earth and Moon. The clouds rest at what are called points four and five, forming a triangle with the clouds and the Earth at the three corners.</p><p>The clouds are enormous, taking up the same space in the night sky as twenty lunar discs; covering an area of 45,000 miles. They are roughly 250,000 miles away, about the same distance from us as the Moon. They are entirely comprised of specks of dust which reflect the light of the sun so faintly most astronomers that looked for them were unable to see them at all. </p><p>The clouds themselves are probably ancient, but the model that the scientists created to learn about them suggests that the individual dust particles that comprise them can be blown away by solar wind and replaced by the dust from other cosmic sources like comet tails. This means that the clouds hardly move but are <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/11/news-earth-moon-dust-clouds-satellites-planets-space/" target="_blank">eternally changing</a>. </p>
How did they discover this?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Nzc4MjQ4MX0.7uU9OqmQcWw5Ll1UXAav0PCu4nTg-GdJdAWADHanC7c/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="952fb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a778280a20f1c54cd2c14c8313224be2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"In this picture the central region of the Kordylewski dust cloud is visible (bright red pixels). The straight tilted lines are traces of satellites."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>In their study published in the <a href="https://academic.oup.com/mnras" target="_blank">Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society</a>, Hungarian astronomers Judit Slíz-Balogh, András Barta, and Gábor Horváth described how they were able to find the dust clouds using polarized lenses.</p><p>Since the clouds were expected to polarize the light that bounces off of them, by configuring the telescopes to look for this kind of light the clouds were much easier to spot. What the scientists observed, polarized light in patterns that extended outside the view of the telescope lens, was in line with the predictions of their mathematical model and ruled out other possible sources. </p>
Why are we just learning this now?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUyNDMyMH0.Zl8GmQ_rJHiL4b7hN0r_YBmgb6_ZqIRvqOVuko2ubpw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C141%2C0%2C185&height=700" id="87afe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd4c0b5088e601d7279cc5eb226f8b7b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"Mosaic pattern of the angle of polarization around the L5 point (white dot) of the Earth-Moon system. The five rectangular windows correspond to the imaging telescope with which the patterns of the Kordylewski cloud were measured."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>The objects, being dust clouds, are very faint and hard to see. While Kordylewski observed them in 1961, other astronomers have looked there and given mixed reports over the following decades. This discouraged many astronomers from joining the search, as study co-author Judit Slíz-Balogh <a href="https://ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/research-highlights/earths-dust-cloud-satellites-confirmed" target="_blank">explained</a>, <em>"The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor."</em></p>
Will this have any impact on space travel?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3d797fff5430c64afcb5a49bddc3616"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ou8N3v9SFPE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lagrange points have been put forward as excellent locations for a space station or satellites like the <a href="https://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html" target="_blank">James Webb Telescope</a> to be put into orbit, as they would require little fuel to stay in place. Knowing about a massive dust cloud that could damage sensitive equipment already being there could save money and lives in the future. While we only know about the clouds at Lagrange points four and five right now, the study's authors suggest there could be more at the other points.</p><p>While the discovery of a couple of dust clouds might not seem all that impressive, it is the result of a half-century of astronomical and mathematical work and reminds us that wonders are still hidden in our cosmic backyard. While you might never need to worry about these clouds again, there is nothing wrong with looking at the sky with wonder at the strange and fantastic things we can discover. </p>
New cancer-scanning technology reveals a previously unknown detail of human anatomy.
- Scientists using new scanning technology and hunting for prostate tumors get a surprise.
- Behind the nasopharynx is a set of salivary glands that no one knew about.
- Finding the glands may allow for more complication-free radiation therapies.
PSMA PET/CT technology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="676e611b970c9b516cace0870447b325"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RHAyoQF09X4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>PSMA PET/CT is a new combination of <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/pet-scan/about/pac-20385078" target="_blank">PET scans</a> and <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ct-scan/about/pac-20393675" target="_blank">CT scans</a> that is believed to offer a more reliable means of locating prostate cancer metastasis. A <a href="https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2020/prostate-cancer-psma-pet-ct-metastasis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> published last spring suggests it may be the most accurate way to diagnose prostate cancer metastasis than any method previously available.</p><p>Prior to PSMA PET/CT, the primary way to look for metastatic prostate cancer was to image the body using x-ray-based CT scans and to perform bone scans, since bone is where prostate cancer often spreads. CT scans, however, often miss small tumors, and bone scans can generate false positives as a result of other damage or abnormalities that have nothing to do with prostate cancer.</p><p>PSMA PET/CT scans track the travels of an intravenously administered radioactive glucose tracer throughout the body. For hunting down prostate cancer, this tracer contains a molecule that binds to the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472940/" target="_blank">PSMA</a> protein that's present in large amounts in prostate tumors. The molecule is linked to a radioisotope, <a href="https://netrf.org/2018/11/13/gallium-68-scan-for-neuroendocrine-tumors/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gallium-68</a> (Ga-68).</p><p>In last spring's research, PSAM PET/CT was shown to be 27 percent more accurate than previous methods at finding metastases (92 percent accuracy as opposed to 65 percent). In addition, it was found to be much less likely to produce false positives, and it was particularly good at detecting tumors far removed from the prostate.</p>
A good kind of avoidance behavior<p>"Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands," says Vogel, "which may lead to complications. Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden."</p><p>The researchers looked back through the cases of 723 patients who had undergone radiation treatment, interested in seeing if inadvertent radiation of the tubarial glands was associated with the complications experienced by the patients. It turned out that this <em>was</em> the case: In cases where more radiation had been delivered to this area, patients did indeed report more in the way of complications of the type one would expect when salivary glands are radiated.</p><p>Now that we know the tubarial salivary glands exist, therapists can stay out of their way. Vogel says, "For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands."</p><p>He's hopeful that that things may be about to get at least a bit better for cancer patients: "Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients. If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment."</p>
A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.