Strengthened Partnership with Mexico Brings Renewed Hope for Vaquita

Mexican Government Enforcement Officers start joint operations on board Sea Shepherd vessels, bolstering chances for survival of endangered vaquita porpoise and addressing security concerns in the region.

SAN FELIPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA MEXICO – February 28th, 2018 –Marine conservation group Sea Shepherd marks closer ties with Mexican government by inaugurating a joint anti-poaching presence on board its vessels stationed in the Sea of Cortez.

With less than 30 vaquita marina porpoises (Phocoena sinus) remaining and a loss of over 90% of the species between 2011 and 2016, Sea Shepherd’s work removing gillnets from the porpoise’s habitat has lent a lifeline to the critically endangered marine mammal.

The main reason for this drastic decline in population is due to bycatch. The vaquita are ensnared in gillnets set to harvest another critically endangered species: the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a type of sea bass. Its swim bladder is sold on black markets in China and Hong Kong to make a soup of unproven medicinal benefits. A single totoaba swim bladder can fetch more than $20,000 USD.

Credit SEMARNAT extension of vaquita protected area
The purple area is the extension to the vaquita refuge, the circles are the incidence of vaquitas and the small dots are illegal fishing gear.

The Mexican government is continuing its efforts to prevent the extinction of the vaquita porpoise, including partnering with Sea Shepherd for the past 3 years. This relationship has been fundamental for protecting the remaining vaquitas. It is bolstered by the government’s ongoing support, including placing armed Marines, Federal Police, Fisheries Officers and agents from the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection on board the organization’s vessels.

Two Sea Shepherd vessels, M/V John Paul DeJoria and M/V Farley Mowat, now each host six Enforcement Officers onboard, with the ability to make arrests, prevent poaching in the refuge and ensure the proper disposal of dead totoaba fish.

This new facet of the government partnership comes at a time where tensions are rising in Upper Gulf of California. Poachers have become more aggressive towards Sea Shepherd vessels, using firearms to shoot down drones and incendiary objects to intimidate the crew. Thanks to the addition of armed Enforcement Agents, security has drastically improved, allowing Sea Shepherd to continue its work protecting the Vaquita Refuge.

In addition, the government has implemented recommendations using CIRVA and Sea Shepherd’s data to identify a new area of high risk for the vaquita porpoise. The Mexican secretariat for the Environment announced on February 9th a new plan to save the vaquita, including a new protected area, where efforts will be focused to remove illegal nets.

To date Sea Shepherd has removed 541 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the Sea of Cortez since starting its effort to protect the vaquita porpoise in 2015, saving 2566 animals in the process. This number does not include the countless animals saved by the removal of these illegal gillnets from their habitat.

Image Credit: Sea Shepherd/ Manuel Leyva/ Rodolphe Villevieille

Sea Shepherd’s Campaign To Save the Vaquita Porpoise Launches in Mexico with Two Vessels

The M/V Farley Mowat and the M/V John Paul DeJoria kick off Operation Milagro IV in the Gulf of California in collaboration with the Mexican Government

Continuing its relentless commitment to stop the imminent extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is returning to Mexico’s Gulf of California for Operation Milagro IV.

Milagro IV, a vaquita defense campaign, will have Sea Shepherd’s M/V Farley Mowat back on active duty for the third consecutive year in the Gulf of California – the only waters on Earth which are home to this shy and elusive mammal.

Joining the Farley for the first time on a Milagro campaign will be the M/V John Paul DeJoria. The vessel is arriving from the Caribbean where it was engaged in Operation Good Pirates of the Caribbean, a relief mission that brought aid to islands affected by Hurricane Maria and Irma.

With Milagro IV, Sea Shepherd will once again work with the Mexican government to address the urgent need to protect the elusive vaquita before it is too late. Both the Farley and the JPD will protect the waters of the vaquita marine reserve, remove nets, patrol for poachers, document issues facing this endangered cetacean and continue to collect data to share with the scientific community. The campaign will run through May 2018.

About the vaquita

The vaquita’s signature dark circles around its eyes and lips have earned it the nickname Panda of the Sea. At around 5ft in length, it is also the smallest marine mammal in the world….and the most endangered. The most recent statistics show the population has dwindled to an estimated less than 30 individuals.

The vaquita is particularly susceptible to population decline, with a slower rate of reproduction than that of other porpoise species – giving birth to only one calf every two years. The species also has a comparatively short lifespan of approximately 20 years.

Yet despite these vulnerabilities, the biggest threat to the vaquita’s survival are illegal gillnets fishermen put out to catch another endangered species: the totoaba bass. The fates of these two sea animals are intertwined. Similar in size to the totoaba, the vaquita gets caught in these gillnets, suffocates and drowns. Meanwhile the captured totoaba has its swim bladder removed and transported to China and Hong Kong where it sells for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market to be for unsubstantiated medicinal properties.

“We must have a higher regard for ocean life if these species are to survive,” said Campaign Leader Jean Paul Geoffroy. “Human greed and lack of respect for the oceans is responsible for near-wipeout of the vaquita. If it goes extinct, that’s another broken link in the eco-chain and one step closer to our own extinction. Sea Shepherd will not give up its fight to save the vaquita and the totoaba.”

Added Sea Shepherd Founder and CEO Captain Paul Watson: “Sea Shepherd is now taking on Milagro IV, our fourth year of the challenging task of preventing the extinction of the endangered vaquita. If not for the confiscation of hundreds of nets and our drone interventions in finding the poachers at night, the vaquita would now be extinct. There are some people who say this is a lost cause and that extinction is inevitable. We disagree. Increased patrols, increased interventions coupled with the courage and the passion of our volunteer crews can prevail. To those who say this is a lost cause, we intend to prove them wrong. Saving the vaquita from extinction is a challenge but we are up for that challenge and we hope that you agree. Making the impossible possible is something we have been doing for forty years.”

Operation Milagro III Update: Suffocating Sharks

On Wednesday 15th of February, the M/V Farley Mowat retrieved three totoaba nets off the shores of San Felipe, just a few miles away from the Vaquita refuge in Mexico’s Gulf of California. In one of these nets the crew found two dead sharks. The first one was believed to be a smoothhound shark measuring 1.10 m in length. The second was a juvenile thresher shark 1.70 m long.

Both these sharks suffered long and painful suffocation whilst struggling to escape these nets. Unfortunately, the Farley Mowat arrived too late to save them. The reality is that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of nets in this area, trapping all sorts of wildlife, condemning the trapped individuals to a slow and agonizing death. A third shark was spotted by the crew in the same net, however, the shark sank as the net was pulled up and no accurate identification could be done. It was believed to be a smoothhound shark as well. However, whether the shark escaped actively or just fell off the net, its carcass sinking to the bottom of the sea, remains unclear.

The conditions of the nets retrieved by the Farley Mowat on February 15, shows that they were deployed only recently. Who knows how long they would have stayed in the water had they not been found by Sea Shepherd, and how many more animals would have suffered as a result of that? The crew regularly finds nets that have been lost at sea or simply left there, continuing their indiscriminate slaughter, killing dolphins, sharks, rays, fish, including the totoaba, which in many instances is the targeted species. The critically endangered Vaquita porpoise can also get trapped in these nets.

The MV Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat are patrolling the Vaquita refuge every day, monitoring illegal fishing activities and picking up ghost nets. In the last two months of the Milagro III campaign, both ships have recovered about 90 nets, saving hundreds of animals. The efforts of both crews will keep going, for several months still, as we remain determined to defend the marine wildlife in the world’s oceans.

Operation Milagro II
Visit our 
Operation Milagro III
site for more information.

Operation Milagro III Update: Death by Gillnets; Whale is Latest Victim

On the 16th of February 2017, the M/V Sam Simon spotted a dead whale on the horizon. The animal, which appeared to be entangled in gillnets, was in waters too shallow for the Sam Simon to approach. PROFEPA, the Mexican environment law enforcement, was notified immediately. It had already identified the animal as a female Bryde’s whale, about 12 m long and 12 tons, under special protection according to the Mexican law NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010. The Whale was caught in an illegal gill net used to catch the totoaba fish, located in the Reserve of the Upper Gulf of the Colorado, 30 km North of San Felipe.

The pictures, taken by the crew of the M/V Farley Mowat on the 18th of February, show the struggle the animal suffered through its desperate attempts to free itself from the net, as it slowly suffocated to death.

This whale is yet another victim of these indiscriminate fishing devices. It reinforces the importance of having Sea Shepherd’s presence in the Gulf of California, as every net pulled up means a safer environment not only for the Vaquita, but also for the sharks, the whales, the fishes and all other creatures of the sea.

dead whale

dead whale dead whale dead whale

Operation Milagro II
Visit our 
Operation Milagro III
site for more information.

Operation Milagro III Update: The Totoaba Massacre of February 5th, 2017

Carcass of one of the dead totoabas. Photo: Robbie Newby

On February 5th, 2017 the M/V Sam Simon came across 16 totoaba carcasses in the Gulf of California waters, in the Baha San Felipe area.

All 16 totoaba had their bladders removed or partially removed.

Prized for its swim bladder, illegal fisherman and the Mexican criminal cartels target this endangered fish just to export its swim bladder for sale on the black market in China and Hong Kong for unsubstantiated medicinal properties. There it can fetch in excess of $20,000 per kilo.

Due to this high street value, the totoaba bladder is frequently referred to as “aquatic cocaine” and is the only reason these animals are being killed.

Dangerous and illegal gill nets are strewn throughout the Gulf of California specifically to trap them.

Once the totoaba’s bladder is removed, the rest of this animal is thrown back into the water. It was this devastating sight of 16 cadavers that Sea Shepherd crewmembers found.

The totoaba is an endangered species native to the Gulf of California.

Sea Shepherd crew on board the Sam Simon's small boat, The Thunder, analyzing one of the dead totoabas. Photo: Jeff Wirth
Sea Shepherd crew on board the Sam Simon’s small boat, The Thunder, analyzing one of the dead totoabas. Photo: Jeff Wirth

Biologist Patricia from Spain taking measurements of one of the carcasses of a dead totoaba. Photo: Robbie Newby

Biologist Patricia from Spain taking measurements of one of the carcasses of a dead totoaba. Photo: Robbie Newby
Biologist Patricia from Spain taking measurements of one of the carcasses of a dead totoaba. Photo: Robbie Newby


Operation Milagro II
Visit our 
Operation Milagro III
site for more information.

Sea Shepherd Rescues Drowning Fisherman In Gulf Of California

Sea Shepherd Rescues Drowning Fisherman In Gulf Of California After Two Men Go Overboard While Fleeing The Scene Of Illegal Fishing Activity

Search for second victim still ongoing

During a night patrol on Wednesday, January 25, 2017, Sea Shepherd vessel M/V Farley Mowat spotted a panga boat with four men fishing illegally in Mexico’s Gulf of California at 9:16 p.m.

When the Farley Mowat shone a searchlight on the panga to identify the vessel, the fishermen immediately fled at a speed of over 30 knots. The Farley Mowat kept the spotlight on the panga but did not pursue it.

According to Sea Shepherd crew, the panga stopped suddenly in the distance. A big splash behind the panga was seen although the crew was not able to identify what occurred.  When the anti-poaching vessel slowly approached the motorized watercraft to see if assistance was needed, one man from the panga was overboard in the water.

The Farley Mowat tossed him two life rings and notified its nearby fleet member, M/V Sam Simon, of the rescue. When the man was unable to climb the pilot ladder to get on board the Farley Mowat, the ship deployed a crane to lift the fisherman on deck. Farley Mowat’s medical officer began providing assistance.

Sea Shepherd Rescues Drowning Fisherman In Gulf Of CaliforniaThe two remaining fishermen on the panga informed Sea Shepherd that one other member of their group had also gone overboard but was nowhere to be found.  The rescued fisherman on board the Farley Mowat confirmed the information.

The Farley Mowat contacted the Mexican Navy to request a search and rescue team. The Navy arrived on the scene at 10:07 p.m. The rescued fisherman was transferred over to them and the Farley Mowat and Sam Simon teamed with the Mexican Navy to search the waters for the missing man.

The search continued overnight and in to the morning.  By 4:30 p.m. on Thursday 26th, 2017, the fourth fisherman was still not located and the search was called off due to an approaching storm.

“Every year illegal fishermen risk their lives by fishing at night without lights, in the cold, and hiding from the authorities,” said Captain Oona Layolle, Director of ship operations. “Many die when they fall overboard without life jackets and some don’t even know how to swim.  They are willing to risk their lives, attracted by the lucrative black market of the totoaba swim bladder. They know the risks of their illegal activities but they still do it for the money. Last campaign, in the midst of a storm, we rescued three fishermen in a disabled panga.”

The Farley Mowat and the M/V Sam Simon are currently in the Gulf of California as part of Operation Milagro III to stop the imminent extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise. Both ships are protecting the vaquita refuge and patrolling for poachers among other duties.

Known as the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal, the vaquita is facing a real threat of extinction. The most recent population estimates show that there are fewer than 60 vaquita remaining.

The biggest threat to the vaquita’s survival is poachers using illegal gill nets to catch the totoaba. The totoaba, which is also threatened by extinction, is a fish found only in Mexico, whose swimming bladder is smuggled mainly through the U.S. border, for its consumption in China. Vaquita often become entangled in the nets and are unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing them to drown.

Operation Milagro II
Visit our 
Operation Milagro III
site for more information.

Ghost Nets are Retrieved to Save the Vaquita

“Ghost nets” are retrieved from the Upper Gulf of California Reserve to save the Vaquita

  • Abandoned or lost fishing nets, known as “ghost nets”, are a threat to vaquita, other endangered species, the ecosystem’s health and navigation
  • In just 21 days, the Mexican Government, with support of local fishermen and NGOs, has retrieved 72 “ghost nets” (including 28 active nets used to fish totoaba) weighing more than 10 tons+

In furtherance of the commitments reached between Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama this past July, and the recommendations of the International Committee for the Vaquita Recovery (CIRVA), on October 10, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico (SEMARNAT), the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) and the Ministry of Defense (SEDENA), together with local fishermen and NGOs, launched an unprecedented program to retrieve “ghost nets” in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico.

The Mexican government´s efforts to retrieve the abandoned nets were joined by PESCA ABC, a fishermen organization from San Felipe, Baja California (habitat of the vaquita), as well as three civil society organizations committed to the sustainable development of the region (World Wildlife Fund-Mexico and Germany, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and “Museo de la Ballena” from La Paz, Baja California Sur) which provided financial, technical and logistic support.

Farley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Rio Navarro

During 21 days (1,500 hours) of search operations covering 11,814 kilometers between October 10 and December 7, a total of 136 abandoned fishing gear were localized, of which 103 were retrieved: 36 illegal gillnets for totoaba (28 active); 36 illegal gillnets for shrimp; 24 longlines to capture totoaba, sharks and other fish (80-500 meter in length, all in bad conditions); and 7 trawl nets and traps. Two live marine turtles, hundreds of fish (including one totoaba) and crustaceans were released; also six totoabas, three marine turtles, rays, more than a thousand different fish and a non-identified marine mammal were found dead.

The goal of this ambitious program, which Mexican authorities plan to continue without interruptions, is to eliminate the serious risk that abandoned gillnets represent for vaquita, a porpoise that only exists in Mexico and that, with only 60 live individuals remaining, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Vaquita is in the brink of extinction due to incidental entanglement in illegal gillnets mainly used to catch totoaba, but also shrimp and other fish in which they drown. The totoaba, which is also threatened by extinction, is a fish found only in Mexico, whose swimming bladder is smuggled mainly through the U.S. border, for its consumption in China.

Ghost nets also impact other endangered species, such as whales, sharks, marine turtles, totoaba and other important commercial species. They are also a threat to navigation in the Upper Gulf of California.

The ghost net retrieval program has the participation of 40 fishermen from San Felipe (Baja California) with 20 small boats (pangas) and 5 large vessels from SEMAR, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (PROFEPA), the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP), the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the “Museo de la Ballena”.

The ghost net retrieval operation has three phases: (i) detection of nets and marking (using GPS) by local fishermen using towed hooks along previously defined transects; (ii) net retrieval by authorities (PROFEPA, CONANP, SEMAR), in collaboration with NGOs who support with ships and specialized equipment (Sea Shepherd and “Museo de la Ballena”); and (iii) transport, stockpile and destruction of nets and other gear, led by PROFEPA.

Ghost nets are fishing gear abandoned or lost at sea, which may remain adrift for months or years, continuously catching and killing millions of fish, crabs, lobsters, turtles, birds and marine mammals all over the world. Ghost nets affect marine ecosystems and impact the sea bottom, they also represent a threat to navigation.

In addition, if these nets are not retrieved, the chemicals used for their manufacture are incorporated into the marine food chain through their ingestion by marine invertebrates, fish and other species – many with commercial value – affecting not only the ecosystem, but also humans who consume marine products.

According to the United Nations, 640,000 tons of ghost nets are currently floating in the oceans, representing almost 10% of all marine litter. Several UN General Assembly resolutions mandate nations to address this issue through specific actions.


Farley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Matt Sweigart