Sea Shepherd Ship Attacked Inside Vaquita Refuge

Sea Shepherd Ship M/V Farley Mowat surrounded by over 35 poaching vessels and boarded in broad daylight.

San Felipe, BCN, Mexico – January 9th, 2019 – Sea Shepherd Vessel M/V Farley Mowat was conducting maritime patrols inside the Vaquita Refuge in the Upper Gulf of California, and had recovered three illegal gillnets that morning, when at 1:00 PM the crew noticed approximately 35 skiffs operating inside the refuge.

The Sea Shepherd vessel headed towards the skiffs to observe fishing methods being employed, as all gillnet fishing is strictly prohibited inside the marine protected area.

At 1:20 PM, the Sea Shepherd ship approached the skiffs where obvious illegal poaching was taking place, as totoaba fishing gear was detected being loaded into a skiff.

At this point, one of the skiffs began circling the Sea Shepherd vessel which was soon joined by the remainder of other skiffs.

Sea Shepherd under attack in the sea of cortezFull Attack.00_00_31_36.Still004

The M/V Farley Mowat was ambushed and overwhelmed by more than 35 skiffs, many containing gillnets. The poachers attacked by hurling lead weights, anchors, trash, dead fish and even Tabasco sauce at the vessel and its wheelhouse windows in addition to threatening ship’s crew with Molotov cocktails, spraying gasoline at the ship and pouring gas in the sea around the vessel.

Poachers then dropped an illegal gillnet in front of the bow of the moving Sea Shepherd vessel in an attempt to foul the ship’s propellers. Five agitated poachers illegally boarded the M/V Farley Mowat and looted multiple objects from the vessel’s deck while it was temporarily immobilized.

During the illegal boarding, the Sea Shepherd crew was able to keep the poachers from entering into the ship, and used an emergency firehose to repel the boarders, while

waiting for naval forces to arrive. At this time a Mexican Naval Helicopter made several passes above the scene and the skiffs began to disperse.

Mexican Navy sailors and Gendarmeria stationed onboard the Sea Shepherd vessel were under strict orders not to fire. The captain of the M/V Farley Mowat managed to restart the engines after the propeller fouling and headed to the port of San Felipe where the ship was met by the regional Navy Commander and reinforcements.

Captain Paul Watson, Founder and CEO of Sea Shepherd said of the event “Sea Shepherd will not be deterred by violence. Our mission is to prevent the extinction of the vaquita porpoise and we will continue to seize the nets of poachers in the Vaquita Refuge. Sea Shepherd salutes the quick responsiveness of the Mexican Navy in defusing a dangerous situation.”

Sea Shepherd has been present in the Upper Gulf of California since 2015 as part of Operation Milagro, a campaign to protect the most endangered marine mammal on Earth – Mexico’s Vaquita porpoise. Less than 30 vaquitas remain alive. The main threat to the tiny cetacean is illegal Totoaba gillnet fishing.

The Totoaba fish is another endemic endangered species to the Gulf of California and it is poached for the trade of its swim bladder in Asian black markets. Totoaba bladders are known as “aquatic cocaine” due to their high value. It is believed that a totoaba bladder can be worth up to USD 100,000.

Sea Shepherd has already removed more than 780 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the Upper Gulf of California. That is more than 174,000 meters of illegal gear, directly saving the lives of over 3100 animals.

Sea Shepherd Ship Joins Search and Recovery of Mexican Navy Helicopter

Mexican Navy helicopter crashes into the ocean while engaged in patrol protecting the highly endangered vaquita porpoise in the Sea of Cortez.

San Felipe, Mexico – October 22nd, 2018 – During the late afternoon of Saturday, October 20th, 2018, a Mexican Navy helicopter crashed into the ocean while engaged in anti-poaching patrols over the vaquita refuge in the Upper Gulf of California (a.k.a. Sea of Cortez).  Sea Shepherd ship the M/V Farley Mowat participated in the search and rescue operation.  Using the same techniques routinely used to find illegal fishing gear, the marine conservation group pinpointed the exact position of the helicopter wreck at the bottom of the sea using sonar, while assisting the Mexican Navy.

The MI-17 helicopter was in the middle of a patrol, ensuring the marine protected area in the Upper Gulf of California was free from illegal activities, when it apparently lost control and crashed into the sea. Fishermen in the area reported the incident to authorities using mobile phones and sped to the scene in pangas (small fishing skiffs) with the Mexican Navy soon on the scene.

Heroically, 11 of the 12 helicopter crew were rescued.  Nine of them reported to be in good condition, with two seriously injured and one missing. The cause of the crash is under investigation by the Mexican Navy.

181021_OMV_FonG_Helicopter Search-2-2

Sea Shepherd’s vessel M/V Farley Mowat was dockside in San Felipe Harbor at the time of the incident and hurried to join the search and rescue mission,  after offering assistance to the Head of the Navy in the region.  “By the time we arrived at the remote location it was already dark and the search and rescue team from the Navy and some fishermen were in the area looking for the missing flight crew and helicopter wreckage,” said Sea Shepherd Campaign Leader JP Geoffroy. “We used our sonar to visualize the wreck and determine an exact position, which was relayed to the Navy straight away. We used the same equipment used to detect sunken illegal fishing gear poachers use to catch the totoaba fish”

At 1:30 am on October 21, 2018, Navy divers were sent down to confirm the location pinpointed by the sonar.  Due to strong currents, it was not possible for the divers to find anything.  The search and rescue team had to wait for daylight the next morning to perform another attempt.

In the morning, the Navy divers confirmed the helicopter wreckage at 8.7 meters depth as recorded by the Sea Shepherd sonar the night before.  One person is still missing.

“The search and rescue operation the M/V Farley Mowat was engaged in, along with the Mexican Navy, successfully located the downed helicopter in the early hours of the morning of the 22nd of October,” said the Captain of the M/V Farley Mowat, Robert Peel, adding, “The combined efforts of all personnel, of both the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican Navy, in addition to the use of Farley Mowat’s onboard sonar detection systems, allowed us to pinpoint precisely the position of the downed aircraft, to enable navy divers to locate and investigate the aircraft wreck, in very bad visibility condition and strong currents. Unfortunately, the missing person was not located in the aircraft.”

181021_OMV_FonG_Helicopter Search-3-2

The Mexican Navy is present in the Upper Gulf of California and patrols the area protecting the vaquita porpoise – the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

The vaquita species is in dire straits due to poaching of another endangered species, the totoaba fish. Totoabas are fished exclusively for their swim bladders, which are sold in Asian black markets for upwards of $20,000 USD.

This is Sea Shepherd’s fifth season in the region, working by invitation of Mexican authorities. The marine conservation group returned to the area in September.

Currently carrying out Operation Milagro V, the conservation group removes illegal gillnets from the marine protected area known as the vaquita refuge in the Upper Gulf of California, as a proven method to keep the small porpoise from extinction.

The last released study showed that less than 30 vaquita were alive. Scientists have not published a new estimate in two years.

The Mexican government is engaging in an unprecedented effort to save the vaquita, dedicating resources from the navy, the army and several other federal institutions to keep the species from disappearing.

“Saving a species from extinction is no small task,” stated Sea Shepherd Founder Captain Paul Watson, who went on to say, “It is sad that one marine is still missing because of this tragic accident. Sea Shepherd commends these brave men that risk so much to protect and defend the endangered vaquita porpoise. Thankfully 11 of the 12 crew were rescued thanks to the prompt action by Mexican Navy officers and Mexican fishermen. Our sincere sympathies to the family of the missing man.”

Sea Shepherd Initiates Early Patrols to Safeguard Survival of Critically Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

Sea Shepherd returns to the Sea of Cortez to resume patrols protecting the critically endangered vaquita porpoise for the fifth season.

San Felipe, Mexico – August 20th, 2018 – Sea Shepherd vessel the M/V Farley Mowat has arrived in the Upper Gulf of California in order to start Operation Milagro early this year.  In previous years, the campaign has started as the totoaba fish returns from its migration to the vaquita habitat, around early November.  Due to the critical state in which the vaquita porpoise species finds itself – currently the most endangered marine mammal in the world – Sea Shepherd is back earlier this season, with renewed strength to apply its proven techniques to protect the smallest porpoise in the world.

“There is work to do to ensure the vaquita survives. Sea Shepherd will start removing inactive totoaba fishing gear, also known as ghost nets and we will come across occasional active nets this early in the season,” said Sea Shepherd Director of Marine Operations and Campaigns Captain Locky Maclean. “We are also ensuring no fishing is taking place inside the protected area and preventing poaching activities by patrolling the area with our partner agencies from the Mexican Government on-board.”

The last study released showed that less than 30 vaquita were alive. Scientists have not published a new estimate in two years.

Sea Shepherd is launching Operation Milagro V, the fifth season the marine conservation group will use direct-action tactics to protect the vaquita. Milagro is the Spanish word for miracle- an appropriate name given that when the campaign began, there had been no registered vaquita sightings in two years.  Many people were saying the marine mammal was already extinct.  The Sea Shepherd team sighted and recorded a vaquita in early 2015. This happened as the Mexican government renewed its commitment to protect this endemic species and a partnership was born.

161212_MIlagro 3_P1570067

Since then, Sea Shepherd has developed the only proven method to date to conserve the small porpoise alive:  the removal of illegal fishing gear from its habitat.

The reason for the rapid decline of the vaquita is the poaching of the totoaba fish.  After the totoaba was harvested to near extinction in the mid-seventies, its fishing was banned.

Recently, however, it was discovered that the totoaba closely resembled a Chinese endemic croaker, which was critically endangered due to the demand for its swim bladder. This resulted in the start of huge amounts of illegal fishing for the totoaba in search of the swim bladder, believed to have medicinal properties. This doomed not only the fish, but even more tragically, the vaquita.  The two species are of a similar size and during the totoaba spawning season, they inhabit the same exact location. This results in the death of the vaquita from the fishing nets, known as gillnets, laid to catch the totoaba.

While vaquitas used to fall prey as bycatch from fishing for shrimp and fin fish, they are now victims of the gillnets made precisely to catch a fish the same size as the vaquita.

These nets, in combination with the insatiable demand for the swim bladders in China, and the obscene value poachers can sell these bladders for – allegedly a poacher can make $2,500 per totoaba bladder, which will sell for $20,000 in Asian black markets-  create a challenge the vaquita and the totoaba have never seen before.

It is therefore critical that Sea Shepherd is there to remove illegal nets and free marine wildlife.

The Mexican government has made an unprecedented effort to save their native species, dedicating a large part of the navy, the army and several other governmental institutions to solve the issue.  It is no small task and Sea Shepherd has witnessed the efforts of hundreds of people working together to protect the vaquita. Sea Shepherd works in partnership with Mexico to remove the illegal fishing gear from the vaquita habitat and provide information and expertise advice to the authorities.  The conservationists also provide important data to scientists and work with the community to move away from unsustainable industries and promote conservation.

_Carolina_A_Castro_totoaba caught in gillnet-1550092

Sea Shepherd has removed 808 illegal pieces of fishing gear since we began our operations. This has cost the poachers an estimated $857,779 USD just in lost fishing gear..  Sea Shepherd has saved 3069 animals, including one humpback whale, 88 critically endangered totoaba fish, one critically endangered pacific leatherback turtle and 21 sharks. Those numbers do not include the hundreds of animals saved by the removal of the nets and other fishing gear before the animals become entangled.

However, protecting the vaquita from illegal activity is no easy feat. Sea Shepherd has had a drone shot down as well as shots fired at one of the ships.

“If Sea Shepherd had not been present in the Sea of Cortez, the vaquita could be extinct by now,” said Captain Paul Watson, founder and CEO of the conservation organization.  “Each year we become more efficient at the task of protecting the vaquita porpoise.”

Last year alone, we removed more fishing gear than we had in all previous years combined.  For Milagro V, we have a new vessel with better capabilities to remove nets being fitted for campaign right now.” Continued Captain Watson, “For all the people saying there is no hope for the vaquita, we disagree. We will keep fighting for her, and we will fight harder than ever. I encourage all of you to join us.”

The campaign has no end date, as the need to keep a tight watch on the vaquita porpoise becomes even more urgent. Sea Shepherd undertook what it takes to pull the species back from the brink of extinction: a presence in the Upper Gulf of California, patrolling the vaquita habitat and removing the threats that kill the porpoise.

New Ship Strengthens Sea Shepherd’s Effort to Save the Vaquita

Renewed hope to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise as Sea Shepherd crews work tirelessly to repair newest addition to the fleet in anticipation of net retrieval operations in the Upper Gulf of California. 

Fernandina Beach, FL – Sep 6th, 2018 – Sea Shepherd has received a generous vessel donation from philanthropist Benoit Vulliet which will enable the marine conservation group to be more effective in their fight to save the most endangered marine mammal in the world, Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita porpoise.  

The newest anti-poaching vessel in Neptune’s Navy, as the organization’s fleet is known, is former U.S. Coast Guard Buoy Tender White Holly. The organization also operates three former U.S. Coast Guard Island Class Cutters currently engaged in marine conservation and anti-poaching operations. 

White Holly was built at Basalt Ship Building in 1944 and served in World War II in Pearl Harbor delivering ammunition to naval vessels. She was acquired by the Coast Guard in 1946 and served until the seventies protecting the Alaskan coastline.  The vessel was later transferred to Mississippi as a Buoy Tender to restore aids to navigation damaged by hurricanes until her retirement from the Coast Guard in 1998.

Sea Shepherd White Holly Fernandina Beach

Benoit Vulliet acquired the White Holly for oceanographic research.  Due to a busy schedule and living in Europe, Mr. Vulliet found it difficult to continue managing the vessel, deciding to donate her to Sea Shepherd for a continued life of service, this time to protect marine wildlife and habitat.  

“I know that this boat will do a good job with Sea Shepherd,” said Mr. Vulliet. “I will always be a pirate. I am very happy to be a part of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society”.  

The vessel’s first new mission as part of the Sea Shepherd fleet will be joining Operation Milagro V in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The campaign aims to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. Vaquitas are endangered because of gillnet poaching, mostly meant to catch the totoaba fish. Like the vaquita, the totoaba is endemic to the Sea of Cortez and critically endangered. The fish are being heavily targeted for their swim bladders, which are illegally sold for exorbitant amounts of money in Asian black markets. It is said that a totoaba bladder can fetch up to $20,000 USD in China.  

“Coast Guard Buoy tenders have low freeboard and large working decks, just what our dedicated volunteers crew members need to pull illegal nets efficiently from the sea. The ship is also very fuel efficient, which means we will be able to stay at sea for longer periods while ridding the vaquita refuge of illegal gillnets,” said Sea Shepherd’s founder and CEO Captain Paul Watson. Acoustic monitoring estimates from 2015 showed that less than 30 vaquita were still alive. This data triggered varied reactions from the scientific and conservation community including the notion that trying to save the vaquita porpoise is a lost cause. 

“It’s always been my opinion, that the only causes really worth fighting for are lost causes,” said Watson. “It’s incredible how many times Sea Shepherd has pulled through, and lost causes have turned into victories. As a matter of fact we believe the vaquita would not still be here if Sea Shepherd had not had the initiative to start removing nets from the vaquita habitat, working with Mexican authorities.” He concluded, “Sea Shepherd’s effort of removing gillnets from the vaquita habitat, so far has been the only proven effective method to save the porpoise.” 

Sea Shepherd’s M/V White Holly will undertake major refit work in Fernandina Beach, Florida.  The crew received a warm visit from Mayor Johnny Miller to welcome the ship to the community, which has been very supportive of Sea Shepherd’s work and mission. The vessel is scheduled to depart in December for Mexico by way of the Panama Canal.