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The Last Ocean: The Toothfish and the Battle for Antarctica’s Soul cover image

The Last Ocean: The Toothfish and the Battle for Antarctica’s Soul 2013

Highly Recommended

Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Peter Young
Directed by Peter Young
DVD , color and b&w, 53 and 87 min. versions

General Adult
Ecology, Antarctica, Chilean Sea Bass, Fishing, Sustainability, Antarctic Toothfish, Climate Change, Ross Sea, Marine Ecology

Date Entered: 05/01/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

The 1972 science fiction film Silent Running imagined a future when the last wild habitats had been put into geodesic domes and sent into orbit around Saturn. They were then abandoned when the leaders of the world were unable to muster the will and money to maintain them. This documentary sounds a similar alarm with regard to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, one of the few remaining pristine marine habitats. Since the 1990s, the global commercial fishing industry has relentlessly harvested the Antarctic Toothfish. Consumers know the species as the “Chilean Sea Bass,” a name concocted by New York restaurants for well-heeled diners in the trendiest eateries around the world. But fisheries, no matter how abundant, are no match for the technology of modern commercial fishing. This is particularly true in the case of the Ross Sea, which exists outside any national boundaries – though it was set aside as the world’s largest nature preserve by the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, which designated the Antarctic as a de-militarized zone to benefit all humanity. However, the treaty did not apply to the surrounding waters, and the international body responsible for regulating the fisheries, beginning in 1996, gave the green light to commercial fish harvests. Those harvests now threaten the fishery as well as the entire food chain – leading up to the largest whale predators – which depend upon it.

It is almost a cliché in documentaries and writing on the environment to cast corporate capitalist interests and the politicians who serve them into the role of villain – and activists allied with scientists as heroes. But sometimes that narrative accords with reality. In a world where the power of law and enforcement rests with the nation state, international waters, though regulated in theory, are in practice a place where virtually anything goes – from the dumping of toxic wastes to rapacious extraction of fish for profit.

Also stepping into the role of villain are consumers. Their appetite for the “Chilean Sea Bass” ultimately motivates the Toothfish harvest and sets into motion a perverse dynamic: The rarer a species, the more delectable it becomes, yielding ever higher profits for harvesters as they pursue their quarry into the most isolated corners of the globe. It confirms what the economist Garrett Hardin referred to as the “tragedy of the commons”: the inability to stop the destruction of a common public resource (the high seas) when the costs associated with its exploitation by an individual or corporation are passed on to the entire public.

The documentary tells the story through various scientists who specialize in the Ross Sea, including the noted ecologist Dr. David Ainley, who has been visiting and studying the Antarctic for 40 years. These scientists were the children of the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. In addition to their research interests, they were attracted to the utopian idea that the Antarctic would be a place that could bring the world together in the interests of advancing knowledge about the natural world and in so doing to develop a fundamentally new relationship between human beings and the environment in which they live. The presence of industrialized fishing, in their view, not only destroyed the habitat of the Ross Sea, but it also attacked their hope for a new kind of human community. The money changers had entered their temple and profaned it.

The documentary is beautifully filmed, with stunning images of wildlife and glaciers. Those images contrast starkly with the tale of rapacious exploitation – ground zero for the unseen consequences of the world’s insatiable appetite for fish. Scientists know little about the breeding cycle of the Toothfish, which is tasty and extremely easy to cook in a variety of ways. To make matters worse, the Antarctic Toothfish has an extremely slow metabolism, as an adaptation to the extreme cold, and grows very slowly. As a result, it takes little time to deplete the fishery to the point where it cannot recover – a point that may have already been reached – yet fishery regulators claim the annual harvests are “sustainable.”

Despite mounting scientific evidence of irreversible decline, the international regulatory body responsible for regulating the fishery seems to have concluded that its job is less to conserve the fishery than to harvest it. And so it has approved continuing harvests in the Ross Sea. That decision reflects the depressing reality that the fishing industry has largely depleted most of the fisheries on the high seas; the Ross Sea remains the last hunting ground and their needs, it appears, must always be accommodated.

Ironically, the fishing vessels that first penetrated the Ross Sea come from one of the supposedly more environmentally-friendly nations, New Zealand. Faced with the option of foregoing the $20 million or so generated by the Ross Sea fishery for the New Zealand fishing industry, or continuing the slaughter, otherwise green-leaning politicians continue to choose the latter. To stop the onslaught, Ross Sea scientists have unified to stop fishing in the Ross Sea, consolidating their knowledge about the ecosystem and then hitting the road to mobilize public opinion. Entering the political and commercial realm, these scientists may be tilting at windmills. The documentary attempts to end on a positive note, documenting the alliance of consumers, scientists, and progressive politicians who are attempting to ban fishing in the Ross Sea. But it does not seem like a fair fight. In the end, the attempt to save the Toothfish may be a lesson in the futility of global, grass-roots organizing. Regardless, the Ross Sea debates in this documentary provide an excellent window into the current state of environmental science and politics. It also serves as yet more evidence that despite the vastness of the oceans, the resources they contain, and their ability to withstand the onslaught of human waste and toxins, are indeed limited and reaching the point of unsustainability.