Sea Shepherd's Bat­tle to Save En­dan­gered Species in Mex­ico Heats Up

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At 7:45 pm PST on March 26th, Sea Shepherd ves­sel M/V SHARPIE came upon an il­le­gal gill­net within the Vaquita Refuge in the North­ern Sea of Cortez, Mex­ico. The gill­net was entangled in a long­line. As the ship’s crew be­gan to sep­a­rate the il­le­gal fish­ing gear, they no­ticed live to­toaba bass in the net, em­bark­ing on an un­prece­dented res­cue op­er­a­tion.

It is the height of to­toaba bass spawn­ing sea­son in the Up­per Gulf of California, when the en­dan­gered fish mi­grate directly to an area in­hab­ited by the Vaquita por­poise. The Vaquita is cur­rently the most en­dan­gered ma­rine mam­mal in the world, and con­tin­ues to be threat­ened as by­catch in the il­le­gal to­toaba trade.

Ten­sions are ris­ing in the 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, and an em­bold­ened pact with Mex­ico’s En­vi­ron­ment and Fish­eries Min­istries, Fed­eral En­vi­ron­men­tal At- tor­ney’s Of­fice and Fed­eral Po­lice, se­cu­rity has dras­ti­cally im­proved, al­low­ing Sea Shepherd to con­tinue its im­por­tant work pro­tect­ing the Vaquita Refuge.

The to­toaba bass is highly sought after by mis­guided and su­per­sti­tions Chi­nese for its swim blad­der. Much like shark fins or rhino horns, to­toaba blad­ders are sold in Asian mar­kets as medic­i­nal quack­ery. One to­toaba blad­der can sell up­wards of 10,000 USD in Asia.

Although poach­ers in the Gulf of California see only a frac­tion of the street price, they do well by lo­cal stan­dards, which has added the to­toaba to the eco­nom­ics of ex­tinc­tion, con­se­quently push­ing the Vaquita por­poise to the brink of ex­tinc­tion as a tragic side ef­fect.

All seemed nor­mal the evening of March 25th as the Sea Shepherd M/V Sharpie pa­trolled the pro­tected Vaquita area look­ing for il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity. The ship’s cap­tain, Fanch Martin from France, spot­ted a net by de­ci­pher­ing ship’s sonar data, a new method de­vel­oped by Sea Shepherd in re­cent months.

“It was a chal­lenge to main­tain the ship’s po­si­tion in the strong cur­rent while the crew pulled the net and saved the fish quickly and ef­fi­ciently, while at the same time, keep­ing the long­line tight enough so it would not en­tan­gle my pro­pel­ler” said Cap­tain Fanch, adding “The co­or­di­na­tion of the crew and the au­thor­i­ties on board was in­tense. Ev­ery­one was in­volved and fo­cused, it was an all hands on deck mo­ment, and the crew did an amaz­ing job, with the ex­tra­or­di­nary out­come of sav­ing ev­ery sin­gle to­toaba in that net; this has never hap­pened be­fore.”

The M/V Sharpie’s bo­sun, Wil­lie Hat­field, who co­or­di­nated the deck ac­tiv­i­ties stated, “This is a quin­tes­sen­tial mo­ment for Op­er­a­tion Mi­la­gro, sav­ing a whole school of spawn­ing crit­i­cally en­dan­gered to­toaba at once means so much.” After the two in­tense hours it took to save all the fish and re­move the il­le­gal fish­ing gear from the Sea of Cortez, he added. “As we were leav­ing, we saw a skiff com­ing to re­trieve the net.

Those fish were five min­utes away from death and we saved them, it was a mir­a­cle.” Sea Shepherd op­er­ates two for­mer Is­land Class US Coast Pa­trol ships in the area pro­tect­ing the Vaquita as part of Op­er­a­tion Mi­la­gro IV, the M/V Sharpie and M/V Far­ley Mowat. Each ship hosts five En­force­ment Of­fi­cers from the Govern­ment of Mex­ico on board, with the abil­ity to make ar­rests, prevent poach­ing in the Refuge and as­sure the proper dis­posal of dead to­toaba fish. The of­fi­cers were es­sen­tial in sav­ing the to­toaba, as they tire­lessly helped the Sea Shepherd crew, both in keep­ing the fish alive while be­ing freed from the net, and en­sur­ing the ves­sel’s safety from armed poach­ers.

To date Sea Shepherd has re­moved 596 pieces of il­le­gal fish­ing gear from the Sea of Cortez since start­ing its ef­fort to protect the Vaquita por­poise in 2015, sav­ing 2,661 an­i­mals in the process. That ac­counts for over 100 kilo­me­ters (62 miles) of nets re­moved, which is the dis­tance from earth to outer space and the height of nine Ever­est moun­tains. Sea Shepherd works with mem­bers of its part­ner net­work to en­sure these il­le­gal nets will be re­cy­cled re­spon­si­bly and never find their way back into the ocean.

Photo © Sea Shep­herd

Photo © Sea Shep­herd

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