Operation Milagro IV – Vaquita Porpoise Defense Campaign

“Milagro” means “miracle” in Spanish – and thus, Operation Milagro is a very appropriate name for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s campaign designed to save the most endangered marine mammal in the world – the vaquita marina porpoise (Phocoena sinus).

November 2017 marks Sea Shepherd’s return to Mexico’s Gulf of California for Operation Milagro IV to save the near-extinct vaquita porpoise.

This is Sea Shepherd’s fourth consecutive year in the Gulf and the most crucial one yet for the vaquita. The latest official numbers of this species has dropped to less than 30, half the amount previously recorded in the 2015. With such dire statistics, the vaquita is now the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

The smallest of all the porpoises, the vaquita is also endemic to the Gulf of California (aka The Sea of Cortez) and if action to protect it are not taken and enforced now, it risks joining such animals that have gone extinct in the last century as the West African Black Rhinoceros, the Caribbean Monk Seal and the Javan Tiger.

Unfortunately, threats to the vaquita are entirely caused by human greed, despite a designated vaquita refuge created in the upper Gulf designed to protect them. Fisherman – illegal poachers often working in conjunction with drug traffickers – are laying down illegal gillnets hoping to catch another fish similar in size: the totoaba. This critically endangered bass is prized for its swim bladder which is sold on the black market in China and Hong Kong for tens of thousands of dollars, earning it the nickname “aquatic cocaine.” As the vaquita swim in the refuge, they become entangled in these nets and are unable to reach the surface of the water, causing them to drown. The fate of this very shy and elusive porpoise is inextricably tied to the fate of the totoaba.

As a direct-action organization, Sea Shepherd is working in partnership with the Mexican government on Operation Milagro IV to protect the vaquita refuge. Sea Shepherd ships, the M/V Farley Mowat and the M/V John Paul DeJoria, will be stationed in the Gulf of California beginning in the fall of 2017, working to remove gillnets, patrol for poachers, document and collect data to share with the scientific community, and report all suspicious activity to the Navy who will make arrests as needed.

Over the past three years, Sea Shepherd has made lots of progress in the Gulf of California. During Operation Milagro III alone, Sea Shepherd removed 233 illegal fishing gear, 1195 entangled dead animals – including shark, dolphins, whales, turtles ad sea lions – and released 795 live ones. Five dead vaquita were discovered by Sea Shepherd during this campaign, their deaths being attributed to being caught in gillnets set up by poachers.

Milagro means “miracle” in Spanish and that is exactly what this shy and elusive porpoise will need in order to come back from the brink. Keeping the refuge free from gillnets and poachers is the only way keep the waters safe for the vaquita so it can thrive and get its population numbers back up.

Aquatic extinction happens silently, with a species absence as the evidence. Sea Shepherd is determined to not let this happen to the vaquita by returning to the upper Gulf and continuing our work.

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Gillnets are the biggest threat to the vaquita

The biggest threat to the vaquita is presented by fishermen that use gillnets. The area inhabited by this endangered porpoise is surrounded by three fishing villages. The main method of fishing in the area is with small skiffs (pangas) that lay gillnets with bouys for several hours at a time. These indiscriminately destructive gillnets are normally made with transparent or green nylon. Combined with the murky quality of the water in the upper Gulf of California, these nets are nearly invisible to the vaquita. As they swim within the marine refuge, the porpoises often become entangled in the nets and are unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing them to suffocate.

The vaquita has been listed as critically endangered since 1996. Scientists have been warning for nearly 20 years that the only way to save the vaquita is to eliminate the presence of gillnets in the only region that this species calls home.

A protected refuge for the vaquita was established in 2005 in an attempt to stop this marine mammal from falling victim as by-catch in the deadly gillnets. Unfortunately, due to a lack of enforcement, this measure failed to solve the problem and the vaquita population declined even further. In the past few years the totoaba fishery resurged in the region, fueling the decline of the vaquita population to the never-before-seen rate of an astounding 18.5% each year.

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Totoaba Bass

The totoaba bass is another endangered marine species native to the upper Gulf of California. The totoaba’s story, like that of the vaquita, is a sad one and is tightly intertwined with the story of San Felipe, the fishing town nearest to the vaquita’s territory. San Felipe was essentially founded because of the totoaba fishery. The totoaba were once an abundant and large fish, weighing up to 300 pounds and growing to more than six feet long. Now, with so few left, it is very rare to spot a totoaba that weighs even 70 pounds. They were hunted to near extinction in the 1960s. Even then, the fishermen were after the totoaba for their swim bladder. The swim bladder is exported from Mexico and sold on the black market in China where it is used for a soup believed to have medicinal properties.

Since 1975, the totoaba has been protected in Mexico when it was listed as an endangered species due to the mad hunt for its swim bladder. In the past few years, the totoaba population made a small comeback; unfortunately, this recovery motivated illegal fisherman and the Mexican criminal cartels to target the endangered fish once more to export the fish’s swim bladder for sale on the black market in China. The resurgence of this market has been devastating not only for the totoaba, but for the dwindling vaquita population. The totoaba fishery resurgence has accelerated the decline of the vaquita from 7.5% annually to 18.5% annually. The gillnets set for totoabas are of a mesh greater than six inches, making their use illegal. The use of these gillnets also makes it more likely for the vaquita to become entangled and drown.

You can do your part in keeping the vaquita alive, safe and free by donating to Operation Milagro IV.