In a race against time, the ocean conservation organization launches the seventh season of its urgent campaign to prevent the loss of a species on the brink of extinction
SAN FELIPE, BCN, Mexico – Oct. 8, 2020 – After several months in port due to the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Sea Shepherd has returned to the Upper Gulf of California to defend the most endangered marine mammal in the world; Mexico’s vaquita porpoise.
The crew of Sea Shepherd’s vessel Sharpie, a former U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, is working alongside Mexican authorities and local community members to retrieve the illegal gillnets that threaten the survival of the vaquita.
“Our presence in the Upper Gulf is more urgent than ever due to the precariously low number of vaquitas left,” said Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepherd. “Every gillnet removed is a weapon disarmed, giving hope that the vaquita can be saved in this race against extinction.”
There are less than 20 vaquitas left alive. Gillnets are the primary cause of the decline of the species. These nets, which often span several hundred feet in length, form impenetrable barriers under the water and pose a deadly threat to all marine life.
Poachers set gillnets in the area to catch totoaba, a protected fish species whose swim bladders are in high demand on the Chinese black market. Vaquitas, which are approximately the same size as totoabas, become entangled in these illegal nets and are caught and killed as bycatch.
“We are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our crew and volunteers while returning to the front line of ocean conservation,” said Jacqueline Le Duc, Captain of Sea Shepherd’s Sharpie. “Our ships are fully stocked with personal protective equipment, and we are carrying out operations under the guidelines set forth by our Medical Advisory Board. The fight to save a species must continue, even during these challenging times.”
Sea Shepherd has actively opposed illegal fishing activities in the area since 2015. As the vaquita population continues to decline, poachers have become increasingly brazen. Last December, Sea Shepherd captured footage of 80 poaching vessels operating in broad daylight. Sea Shepherd’s vessels have come under attack on multiple occasions as poachers attempt to thwart the net retrieval efforts. In March 2020, Sea Shepherd was attacked by a group of over 20 boats while monitoring the Vaquita Refuge, a UNESCO World Heritage site in which gillnet fishing is banned. This attack came only one month after shots were fired at Sea Shepherd’s Sharpie inside the Vaquita Refuge. In January 2019, Sea Shepherd’s vessel Farley Mowat was attacked by a mob of over 50 boats operated by poachers, who hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at the ship, breaking its windows and setting its hull on fire. In a separate attack in the same month, poachers illegally boarded the Farley Mowat.
Despite escalating tensions, Sea Shepherd’s presence in the area has been highly successful, removing over 1,000 illegal gilnets from the vaquita habitat to date.