Sea Shepherd Statement regarding the events in the Vaquita habitat on March 28th, 2019

EN ESPANOL {link to scroll down to Spanish version}

On the morning of March 28th, 2019, Sea Shepherd ships were conducting routine patrols in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, when an illegal totoaba gillnet was identified. While following the protocol of retrieving the illegal net, a skiff headed towards the M/V Sharpie at full speed.

Sea Shepherd Statement regarding the events in the Vaquita habitat on March 28th, 2019

EN ESPANOL {link to scroll down to Spanish version}

On the morning of March 28th, 2019, Sea Shepherd ships were conducting routine patrols in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, when an illegal totoaba gillnet was identified. While following the protocol of retrieving the illegal net, a skiff headed towards the M/V Sharpie at full speed.

Sea Shepherd Discovers Dead Vaquita Caught in Gillnet

The vaquita, one of the last specimens of the most endangered marine mammal in the world, was trapped in a net inside the Vaquita Refuge attesting that illegal gillnets are the biggest threat to the tiny cetacean.

San Felipe, Mexico – March 14, 2019 – On the morning of March 12th, 2019 Sea Shepherd ships M/V Farley Mowat and M/V Sharpie were on routine patrol in the Vaquita Refuge searching for illegal gillnets when they found a target.  At that moment, net removal was not a possibility due to sea and weather conditions.

As per usual procedure, the Sea Shepherd crew recorded the location and returned to remove the illegal fishing gear when sea state allowed.  The crew of Sea Shepherd’s M/V Farley Mowat started removing the illegal gillnet at 3 pm.  Wildlife was trapped in the net, and as the crew was pulling it in they found an unidentified white animal. Some assumed it to be a totoaba fish.

The totoaba fish is the target species for the illegal gillnets that threaten the vaquita porpoise with imminent extinction.  The two animals are of a very similar size, endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, and critically endangered.  Their size and habitat likeness make the gillnets set to catch the totoaba the perfect death trap for the last vaquitas on earth.  Totoabas are being caught to supply a lucrative black market of their swim bladders, which are sold as “medicinal” soup in Asia.  The endangered fish is killed for less than 5% of its body.  The rest is then discarded and left to rot.

The unidentified animal was clearly dead, as the crew was reeling the net into the Sea Shepherd ship it fell off and into the ocean.  The Sea Shepherd drone was launched in an attempt to identify the species before it floated away.  The animal was too decomposed, and the fluke and head were missing, but crew believed it looked like a vaquita porpoise.  Captain Octavio Carranza then deployed the small boat team and Sea Shepherd scientist Laura Sánchez in a further effort to identify the animal.

“The state of decomposition of the body of the cetacean was too advanced for us to be able to identify it,” said scientist Laura Sánchez.  “The absence of the cranium further hampered the situation,” she finished.

After sending preliminary photographs to marine mammal experts and Sea Shepherd scientific advisers, it was determined that morphology and length matched the body of a vaquita porpoise.  Genetic analysis is needed to confirm the identity of species.

Sea Shepherd transported the possible vaquita corpse to San Felipe, where it was given to government authorities for identification.

Sea Shepherd is working in close cooperation with Mexican governmental agencies such as the Environmental Secretariat (SEMARNAT), Navy (SEMAR), Fisheries Department (CONAPESCA), Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), and the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP) to ensure urgent measures are undertaken to protect the vaquita.

Recently there have been rumors spread in the Upper Gulf of California area that gillnets are not a threat to vaquitas and other cetaceans, inciting demands to the Mexican government.

Sea Shepherd has been present in the Upper Gulf of California since 2015 as part of Operation Milagro.  In that time, the crew has documented the entanglement of 36 marine mammals trapped in illegal gillnets. Nine of them were cetaceans, only one of which was able to be saved – a juvenile humpback whale in early 2016.

Although Sea Shepherd has found several dead vaquitas confirmed by scientists to have been killed from entanglement, this is the first time one has been discovered still trapped in a gillnet.

“If there were any reservations about totoaba gillnets being a great danger for vaquitas and other cetaceans, despite ample proof in the past, this event should definitely leave no room for doubt,” said Sea Shepherd Director of Marine Operations Locky Maclean.

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.”