Sea Shepherd Announces ‘Operation Milagro II,’ Fall 2015 Vaquita Porpoise Defense Campaign

File photo: The R/V Martin Sheen in the Sea of Cortez
Photo: Sea Shepherd/Carolina A. Castro

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has officially announced Operation Milagro II (Operation Miracle), the organization’s Fall 2015 campaign to defend the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise.

The crew of Sea Shepherd’s research sailing vessel, the R/V Martin Sheen, will soon begin its patrols in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the only waters on Earth called home by the world’s smallest and rarest cetacean – the vaquita. With a population that has dwindled to an estimated less than 97 individuals, only 25 of whom are believed to be reproductive females, Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro II addresses the urgent need to conserve this imperiled species.

During the campaign, which will span until April 2016, Sea Shepherd will partner with the government of Mexico to protect the waters of the vaquita refuge, patrol for poachers, document issues facing the endangered cetacean, collect data in order to collaborate and to share with the scientific community, and conduct outreach in the region, meeting with marine biologists, researchers and other NGOs working locally to save the vaquita.

These petite porpoises are particularly vulnerable to population decline, with a slower rate of reproduction than that of other porpoise species – giving birth to only one calf every two years. They also have a comparatively short lifespan of approximately 20 years.

Yet the biggest threat to the vaquitas’ survival is likely the gill nets of illegal poaching operations in which the vaquitas often become bycatch. The gill nets are used to catch the totoaba fish – another critically endangered marine species endemic to the Sea of Cortez. The totoaba is a prized and highly profitable catch for poachers seeking the fish’s lucrative swim bladder, which is exported from Mexico, often being sent through the United States, and sold on the illegal black market in China, where it is served in soup. CIRVA (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita), a committee that includes government agencies, marine biologists and NGOs, reports that fishermen can receive as much as $8,500 USD for just one kilogram of swim bladder. The fish are caught, their bladders are removed, and the rest of each critically endangered totoaba – which can reach two meters in length – is simply left to rot.

In April 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the enactment of a two-year moratorium on gill net fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. The government has also provided speedboats to the Navy for patrols of the marine reserve. In addition, Mexico is spending more than $30 million USD on efforts, including a net “buy-out” program, to compensate fishermen who agree to stop using gill nets, and strongly encouraging the use of other, less destructive fishing methods.

Though the vaquita has been brought to the brink of extinction, there might be a miracle in sight. Launched in March of this year, Sea Shepherd’s inaugural Operation Milagro campaign saw great success. On April 18, Sea Shepherd crewmembers documented the first recorded sighting of a vaquita since 2013, shattering claims by some locals that the species is already extinct and no longer in need of protection. The following month, a partnership between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican government was announced, as the two joined forces in efforts to protect the vaquita.

“Sea Shepherd is proud to continue our work with the government of Mexico to protect the rare vaquita. It will take dedicated, collaborative efforts to bring about a miracle for this remarkable endangered species,” said Oona Layolle, Operation Milagro II Campaign Leader. “The smallest cetacean’s massive fight for survival has not gone unseen and unheard by Sea Shepherd. We will not let the vaquita down.”

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