Vancouver Festival of Ocean Films: The Last Ocean is a gorgeously shot call to arms

The Ross Sea is the last untouched marine ecosystem on Earth, but not for long
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Many films document the exploration, exploitation, and inevitable decline—or even destruction—of the planet’s wild places. Often, such spots are referred to as some of the “last” wild places.

Just as often, they are places that are representative of the kinds of areas—both climate- and scenery-wise—to which people like to travel: northern or tropical forests, coral reefs and pristine coastal beaches, mountain valleys, etcetera.

Not quite as popular are relatively untouched areas like Africa’s Kalahari or Sahara deserts, Australia’s outback, the world’s great marshes, and the polar caps.

One of those, though, can truly claim the “last” designation, in this case with reference to the last wild ocean: the Antarctic’s Ross Sea.

Thus, the title The Last Ocean, an illuminating, beautifully filmed, and must-see documentary showing at the Vancouver Festival of Ocean Films tonight (Thursday [June 5] ). For anyone not up to speed on events that have been unfolding at the bottom of the planet during the past 15 years or so, this is a stirring primer on polar conservation.

Ross Sea at a critical crossroads

The Ross Sea, directly below New Zealand as you look at a globe, is about as far south as you can sail before you start heading north, and it is at a true crossroads. Although 1961’s international, and unprecedented, Antarctic Treaty protected the southernmost continent from land claims, military activity, and mineral extraction, it did nothing to defend its bordering oceans or their immense variety of marine life.

The ubiquity of ocean organisms there is staggering, especially during the summer months, when longer daylight hours trigger algal and plankton blooms that signal breeding and rearing seasons for many creatures.

New Zealand director Peter Young directed, shot, and cowrote The Last Ocean, his first feature documentary, over a five-year period. His footage and still photography convey a true sense of that saltwater fecundity, mixed with real reverence for the stunning landscape.

Birth of the Chilean sea bass

The clouds of multicoloured fish that people usually associate with tropical waters are often only found on coral reefs that are, essentially, widely scattered oases in ocean deserts. In the Ross Sea and other Antarctic waters, that profusion is the norm, more or less, and you can add multiple species of whales, seals, penguins, and seabirds to the mix.

At least it was the norm until international fishing fleets discovered a large and tasty white-fleshed fish known as the Antarctic toothfish. Most people probably know it as the Chilean sea bass, a fictitious marketing label dreamed up to convince chefs to place it on their menus.

And place it they did. The flesh is tasty, it freezes and travels well, and it is very forgiving of cooking mistakes. Its sales took off, so much so that the fish became known as “white gold”, and its price on the menu reflected that name.

That attracted more fishing pressure from international boats, on the lookout for profitable (an end value of up to $600 per fish) stocks that aren’t already 90-percent depleted, as is the case with most of the oceans’ large-fish populations.

Remote sea targeted for giant toothfish

Now that the adjacent Southern Ocean is almost denuded of toothfish after only a bit more than a decade of intensive harvest, the fleet has found the Ross Sea. Ninety percent of the total Antarctic toothfish catch for the 2011-12 season came from the Ross.

That’s where director Young comes in, documenting the history of the region, the fishery, and the regulatory morass and vested interests that conservationists find themselves up against in their quest to preserve what is called the most pristine marine ecosystem on the face of the Earth.

In the Ross, the toothfish--a hefty, slow-growing fish that can get up to two metres long, weigh up to 130 kilograms, and possibly live for 50 years—is a bit of a lynchpin species, with marine mammals like seals and orcas feeding upon it from above in the food chain while it keeps in check populations of smaller “ice fish”.

New Zealand, somewhat disappointingly, has virtually led the fishing charge into the Ross, defending the marginal fishery (which makes up only 1.3 percent of that country’s total fisheries’ value) with rhetoric and barely disguised political motives, reminiscent of Canada’s indefensible seal hunts.

Marine ecologist at forefront of fight

In the thick of things, in real life and in the documentary, is California-based marine ecologist David Ainley, who has been conducting research in the Antarctic every summer for three decades.

Ainley, who declares in the film that he is not going to sit back and watch the Ross despoiled “on my watch”, takes the fight to the fishery’s regulators, aided by a Colorado wildlife photographer and director Young.

Under pressure from an international association of marine scientists, both New Zealand and the U.S. have proposed marine protected areas (MPAs) to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), based in Hobart, Tasmania, which has regulated the international fishery since 1996. Fourteen states have signed its convention, which has also been ratified by 35 states and the European Union.

Although the CCAMLR appears to have stringent safeguards in place to protect the resource, in reality, according to scientists in the film, its conservation efforts "are more of an artform rather than a science", and its policy seems to be "fish first and ask questions later".

As several of the researchers explain, little or nothing is known about the toothfish's breeding habits (including when, where, and how), and no larval toothfish have ever been found, not to mention that no one even knows where to find the juveniles.

Proposed protected areas actually protect fishing territories

As shown in The Last Ocean, both the U.S. and New Zealand MPA proposals exclude most of the prime fishing areas.

Now the CCAMLR has granted the fleets permission to take 50 percent of the toothfish stock over the next 30 years, this despite the fact that scientists who have been conducting summer research in the Antarctic for decades are now reporting far fewer orca sightings and an almost negligible toothfish catch (for tagging), down from hundreds per season to fewer than a dozen most recently.

As well, in the face of this and a true dearth of scientific knowledge about the fish and its life cycle, the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) demonstrated that it is keenly aware of who pays its bills (the fishing industry) when it awarded the fishery its coveted "sustainable" designation.

(One of the true head-scratching moments in The Last Ocean comes as a scientist relates how the MSC actually used the lack of hard scientific data about the species as a reason to dismiss scientists’ concerns during a hearing about its pending decision.)

Scientists' report for fishing ban submitted

Now the scientists have assembled an exhaustive report presenting the case for a total fishing ban in the entire Ross Sea. The paper has been presented to the CCAMLR, and the researchers and their backing organization, the Last Ocean Charitable Trust (founded in 2004), wait for a decision while organizing and lobbying to persuade New Zealand and the U.S. to back their proposal.

It’s not usual to see this level of cooperation among the international scientific community, seemingly dozens of whom are interviewed for The Last Ocean, including UBC’s world-fisheries star Daniel Pauly and oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

Their enthusiasm for the cause, their commitment to this unique ecosystem and its surreal beauty, is palpably conveyed to the viewer.

Like Blackfish and The Cove, two recent documentaries that had almost outsize effects on world opinion regarding their subject matter, The Last Ocean should prove a persuasive international tool for the preservation of the Ross Sea.

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