Gunfire erupts in the habitat of the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
San Felipe, BCN, Mexico – February 9, 2020 – While conducting routine monitoring in the Upper Gulf of California, Sea Shepherd vessel the M/V Sharpie encountered a group of four fishing skiffs in the Vaquita Refuge on the morning of February 8th.
At approximately 10:05 AM, the skiffs (known locally as pangas) approached the Sharpie and began to chase the vessel at full speed, swerving in front of and around the ship. The captain of the Sharpie carried out anti-piracy procedures, including the use of water cannons and other anti-boarding techniques. Mexican officials from Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente (PROFEPA), the federal police, and the Mexican navy were on board the Sharpie at the time of the incident.
The pursuit lasted for several minutes and at approximately 10:13 AM, several gunshots were heard. Surveillance cameras on board the Sharpie captured evidence of the attack. At least two shots, fired from the skiffs involved in the pursuit, landed in the water near the Sea Shepherd ship, which was not hit during the incident and no injuries occurred.
The confrontation took place in a section of the Vaquita Refuge known as the “critical zone” – a priority area for conservationists and the Mexican government, and the region in which several vaquitas were recently sighted. It is the same area in which Sea Shepherd discovered a dead vaquita trapped in a gillnet last March.
“This just shows how aggressive the poachers are here. It proves to us that they are armed and that we need to take every panga that we come across seriously, because we have no idea what they are capable of,” says Jacqueline Le Duc, Captain of Sea Shepherd vessel the M/V Sharpie.
The Vaquita Refuge is a federally protected and UNESCO recognized area in which gillnet fishing is banned.
Gillnets are the primary threat to the vaquita, an endemic species whose numbers have plummeted to as few as 6-19 individuals. Poachers set the nets in an effort to catch totoaba, a protected species whose swim bladders sell for a high price on the Chinese black market.
This is not the first time that poachers have resorted to violence in the area. In January 2019, Sea Shepherd vessel the M/V Farley Mowat was attacked by a mob of over 50 skiffs, who hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at the ship, breaking its windows and setting its hull on fire. Earlier in that same month, poachers ambushed and illegally boarded the Farley Mowat.
Sea Shepherd has been working with Mexican authorities in the area for six years, removing the illegal nets that threaten the survival of the vaquita. To date, Sea Shepherd has retrieved more than 1,000 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the Upper Gulf of California, directly saving the lives of over 3,900 animals.