Last chance for “the last ocean”?

The Ross Sea, The Last OceanThe Last Ocean - Ross Sea

Christchurch filmmaker Peter Young said moments before The Last Ocean’s Wellington premiere that New Zealand is the villain in his documentary and Americans are the good guys.

That’s unexpected, especially for an eco-documentary. But the first few scenes of The Last Ocean open up the history books and show clearly New Zealand instigated commercial fishing in the near-pristine Ross Sea.

That was in 1996. Now, fishing vessels from over a dozen nations can be found hauling in millions of tonnes of fish from the world’s last intact marine ecosystem. Highly-respected scientists from the US and around the world first shook their heads in disbelief and then disgust. For them, Antarctica’s Ross Sea is a “living laboratory” and the only marine environment not yet spoiled by humans.

Don’t worry, The Last Ocean is not a 90-minute ecology lesson. It’s a story about the very human, very personal, fight to stop fishing in the Ross Sea. And if the scientists, chefs and artists don’t convince you, maybe the stunning shots of Adelie penguins and leopard seals will.

Young though, chooses the colossal and downright ugly Antarctic toothfish as the campaign mascot. This recently-discovered biological curiosity manages to evade scientists, but not the long-lines of commercial fishers. It’s known as “white gold”, and sold to top-end restaurants for about $70/kg. Every year 3000 tonnes are hauled from the Ross Sea in Olympic-style fishing. Every year, New Zealand leads the race.

Fishing in these waters is an inflammatory issue, and one that had the Seafood Industry Council on the defensive before the film was even released. Yet Young is deliberately measured in his approach. 

There’s no “green neck” hysteria, nor overwrought music or imagery; just plain-speaking scientists, waffle-y politicians and real people on the street. “This is a documentary that creates a platform for discussion. We’re just one perspective,” Young says. “The fishing industry in New Zealand does raise the standards [of fishing] in the Ross Sea, so I don’t have a bug bear with them. This is aimed at a political level.” 

Surprisingly then The Last Ocean isn’t weighed down by politics and resists any desire to preach. Scientists are portrayed as real people and the film is tempered with lightly comic moments (penguins mostly) to balance out what is a fairly disheartening tale. 

It took six years for Young and his team to complete the film. But the real ending won’t be known until the international Antarctic conservation body meets later this year to decide the future of commercial fishing in the Ross Sea.

Its inclusion in the New Zealand International Film Festival is perfectly-timed to raise public awareness before that meeting. It’s here, Young abandons restraint. He makes absolutely clear that viewers can join the campaign and that despite the grim-faced scientists, there’s still hope people can save the Ross Sea. 

Jolene Williams 

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