Sea Shepherd crew saves the life of an adult leatherback turtle entangled in illegal gillnet in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico – a Federally Protected and UNESCO listed Area.

SAN FELIPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA MEXICO – April 22th, 2018 Earth Day – 1:41 pm PST, while patrolling the Vaquita Refuge, Sea Shepherd Vessel M/V Farley Mowat came upon an illegal gillnet. Sea Shepherd Crew members were conducting gillnet retrieval operations when an unfamiliar mass appeared entangled within the net. Upon inspection, it was determined to be a very large leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), still showing signs of life.

Sea Shepherd has two ships stationed in the Upper Gulf of California as part of Operation Milagro IV, a campaign to save the most endangered marine mammal in the world – the vaquita porpoise. Vaquitas and other animals such as this leatherback turtle get entangled in gillnets set to catch another critically endangered sea creature, the totoaba fish. The totoaba is targeted for its swim bladder, which is sold for up to USD 20,000 dollars per bladder in Asian black markets for alleged medicinal purposes.

Poachers sink their illegal totoaba nets in an attempt to deter Sea Shepherd and the Mexican Authorities to locate and remove them, making it impossible for surface-breathing animals to survive for very long once they become entangled.

Sea Shepherd jumped into action once discovering the turtle was still alive. As Sea Shepherd biologists carefully approached the vulnerable animal, they identified it as a critically endangered female East Pacific Leatherback. The turtle was startled at first and dove deep for a few minutes. Upon resurfacing the turtle remained calm long enough for the crew to cut the net wrapped around its neck and carapace.

“The turtle was very strong and active. After we freed its neck and body, it managed to free itself from the rest of the net around one of the flippers.” said campaign leader and biologist Patricia Gandolfo. Adding “The turtle must have just got entangled, as its body didn’t show marks of struggling in the net which are very common in most animals we find in this dire situation.”.

The leatherback was estimated to measure 1,45 meters (4.7 feet) and to be about 20 years old.

Leatherback sea turtles are the largest turtles on Earth. These reptiles have been around for 100 million years, they shared the earth with dinosaurs, but their future is uncertain. Just over the past 3 generations 97% of the East Pacific Leatherback subspecies has been wiped out. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) fisheries bycatch is still considered the major obstacle to population recovery. Another issue these turtles face is the plastics in the oceans, since they subsist almost entirely on jellyfish, they often mistake plastic bags, balloons and other plastics for their food.

“Every day is Earth Day for us fighting for the survival of the oceans. We are here to protect two critically endangered species, the vaquita and the totoaba, but we have already come across other critically endangered species falling victim to illegal fishing, such as this leatherback and endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks.” Said M/V Farley Mowat’s captain Thomas Le Coz. “This is an example of what illegal fishing operations are doing to life at sea, we need to act now and we need to act every single day.” He completed.

Working with Mexican authorities, to date Sea Shepherd has removed 748 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the Sea of Cortez since starting its effort to protect the vaquita porpoise in 2015, saving 2926 animals in the process. That accounts for over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of nets removed, which is the distance from earth to outer space and the height of seven Everest mountains. Sea Shepherd works with members of its partner network to ensure these illegal nets will be recycled responsibly and never find their way back into the ocean.

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