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Mexican Government Stands in Solidarity With Sea Shepherd to Save Nearly Extinct Vaquita

Thanks to a swift response by the Mexican government, a potentially dangerous confrontation by hostile fisherman towards Sea Shepherd was averted on March 30.

A temporary restraining order issued against the fisherman on March 28 by the Attorney General's office was ratified by a judge on April 5.

Protesting fishermen, led by one of San Felipe's fishing cooperative leaders, held a demonstration on March 26 where they threatened to burn Sea Shepherd ships if they were still in the Gulf by, March 30 at 14:00 hours.

Sea Shepherd is currently in the Gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez, for Operation Milagro III to protect the near extinct vaquita porpoise and the endangered totoaba bass. The campaign is in partnership with the government of Mexico.

At the demonstration, the fisherman and their leader took a small local fishing boat, known as a "panga," painted Sea Shepherd's name on it and burned it in the streets of San Felipe. The act served as a warning that they would do the same with the anti-poaching organization's ships, the M/Y Sam Simon and M/V Farley Mowat, if they did not exit Mexican waters. The demonstration ended with the leader promising to attack the Sea Shepherd crew with 200 pangas on March 30.

When that date arrived, Mexican Navy vessels acted as escorts for the Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat in case a clash occurred. Meanwhile, on shore police screened fishing boats before allowing them to launch in to the sea.

However, no more than 60 pangas managed to assemble in the harbor and none set sail towards Sea Shepherd. No one was hurt on either side and no property damage occurred.

Restraining Orders Placed on Fishermen

On April 5, a Mexican judge ratified a restraining order to the fisherman and their group leader, forbidding them to speak, threaten and harass campaign leader and Sam Simon Captain Oona Layolle and the Sea Shepherd crew aboard the Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat. The fisherman have been ordered not come near the ships and land base.

"Sea Shepherd very much appreciated the effective measures taken by the Mexican government to quell what was potentially a very explosive and violent situation," said Captain Paul Watson.

Illegal poachers who set the banned gillnets that trap the vaquita, totoaba and other marine animals—are angry that Sea Shepherd is working with their government to remove these nets and remove the animals caught in them, be they dead or alive. The totoaba bladders fetch $20,000 a kilo in China, a price that has attracted individuals tied to organized crime and drug smuggling to the trade.

This illegal fishing has caused the vaquita numbers to dwindle down to less than 30, leaving the world's tiniest porpoise on the brink of extinction. In March, Sea Shepherd found several dead vaquita floating in the Gulf.

The poachers' animosity toward Sea Shepherd is further intensified because the conservation society uses drones to locate the illegal fisherman and the promptly notifies the Mexican authorities of their coordinates, which has led to arrests.

"Sea Shepherd is not in the area to oppose legal fishing activities," said Captain Layolle. "Sea Shepherd's actions are focused on illegal fishing and the only fishermen who have any reason to be angry with the Sea Shepherd ships are those whose illegal activities are being disrupted and shut down by Sea Shepherd crews."

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Help Save the World's Most Endangered Species

By Zak Smith

There are only about 30 vaquita porpoises left in the world. The smallest and most endangered cetacean species on the planet faces extinction in three years if the people with the power to save it don't take immediate action. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and casting blame elsewhere, the Mexican government, Mexican shrimp fisheries and U.S. shrimp importers must be bold or Mexico will lose this national treasure. But they're not committed to taking the steps necessary to save the vaquita, so we have to motivate them. Boycotting Mexican shrimp is the answer.

The vaquita's steep decline is solely attributable to the use of gillnets in their habitat, a 2,000km² area in the northwest corner of the Upper Gulf of California—an area roughly equal in size to Orange County, California. Vaquita get tangled and drown in gillnets used to catch shrimp, totoaba and other fish. Between 1990 and 2010, shrimp fisheries' use of gillnets drove the population down by more than 70 percent from more than 700 to about 200. After 2010, the use of gillnets in an illegal fishery for a croaker fish called the totoaba (also endangered and also found in the Upper Gulf of California) increased the vaquita's rate of decline as fishermen flooded the area with gillnets to supply Asian demand for totoaba swim bladders.

The response from those with power to force change has fallen flat. The Mexican government promised stronger enforcement of a temporary and incomplete gillnet ban and a ban on fishing in a special vaquita refuge. It hasn't happened; fishermen's use of gillnets in the vaquita's habitat continues unabated. Mexican shrimp fisheries point fingers at the illegal totoaba trade, refusing to take responsibility for bringing the vaquita to the cliff's edge and focusing instead on the fishery that is giving the vaquita the final fatal push. And U.S. shrimp importers pledge fealty to "sustainability," but continue to profit without demanding the vaquita's recovery.

We have the power to force their attention. We have the power to save the vaquita. Boycott shrimp from Mexico and these actors will respond. They will finally ensure that the vaquita's waters are gillnet free. We all know how this works; you hit people where it hurts, their wallets. Join the campaign and save the vaquita.

Zak Smith is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.



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Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

66 Totoaba Found Dead in a Single Net, Dead Newborn Vaquita Washes Ashore

With the near-extinct vaquita porpoise now numbering less than 30, conservation was dealt a blow on March 12, when Sea Shepherd found a dead newborn vaquita on the beach just 33 km south of San Felipe, in the Northern area of the Gulf of California.

The non-profit marine conservation society's anti-poaching ships, the M/V Farley Mowat and M/Y Sam Simon, have been patrolling the upper Gulf since last fall as part of Operation Milagro III to save the vaquita and the endangered totoaba bass.

The body of a second, adult vaquita was reported to the crew not far from where the neonate was found, but after several days of searching by the crew, it has yet to be located. However, the locals who spotted it took pictures and gave them to Sea Shepherd in hopes that its body would still be found.

Sea Shepherd handed over the baby vaquita corpse to the Mexican authorities and a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. The most common cause in the Gulf of California for the vaquita is getting caught in one of the numerous illegal gillnets hidden underwater, set up to trap the totoaba bass. Both the vaquita and the totoaba are similar in size and once the vaquita becomes entangled in the net, it is unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing it to drown.

A dead newborn vaquita.Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"Under the stress of fighting for its life, a mother could have discharged the calf," hypothesized Operation Milagro campaign leader Captain Oona Layolle.

A female vaquita gives birth to a calf approximately once every two years. It is not known if the adult vaquita body spotted by locals was the newborn's mother or not.

Unprecedented Number of Dead Totoaba in One Net

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The marine life devastation in the Gulf of California continued March 14, when the M/V Farley Mowat found and retrieved a net containing 66 dead totoaba. A 67 one was found alive and set free.

Illegal fisherman and the Mexican criminal cartels target the totoaba 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 more than $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.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"We never found as many dead totoaba in one net," said Captain Layolle, who was on hand to witness their destruction by the Federal Agency of the Environmental Protection after the carcasses were handed over to the Mexican government organization. "It was heartbreaking and disgusting to see so many animals die to feed the Chinese demand for swim bladders. The trafficking of their swim bladder is destroying the entire ecosystem of the Gulf of California."

"The illegal fishing activity has never been so dramatic here in the Gulf of California," Captain Layolle continued. "We have been witnessing poacher's activity day and night. High season for totoaba poaching is now hitting hard. It is having a huge impact on the biodiversity of this place; this is our last chance to save the species from extinction. But it seems that human ignorance and greed won't stop."

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson added: "We are on the threshold of the doorways to extermination of many marine species. If we lose the vaquita, what next? Sea Shepherd needs all the help we can get to prevent the extinction of the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise."

Gill Nets Push Species to the Brink of Extinction

By Raffaella Tolicetti

With reproductive instincts pushing them towards the Colorado River Delta, thousands of corvina fish are currently swimming with the tide along the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. Making their way to the estuaries, where fresh water mixes with the saline components of the seas, these corvina are unaware that many of them will not even get the chance to lay their eggs in the very particular habitat they depend on to reproduce.

Classified as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, corvina have been victims from overfishing since the 90's. Law enforcement agencies struggle to monitor their catch, despite a regulation that limits the amount of fish that can be removed from the sea.

Covina are a marvel of nature. Their spawning rhythm is synchronized with the moon and tide cycles, transforming the calm seas of the Gulf of California into a rollicking theater as they emit their distinctive croaking sounds to communicate spawning readiness and begin to organize their formations.

Unfortunately, this spectacle also signals the fishermen, who lay nets by the thousands, waiting for this exact moment to begin catching corvina by the tons.

These fish are surrounded by an army of small boats (745 of which are legal, but the government agencies estimates that at least 1,000 pangas go out fishing) and have no chance against the nets that will catch any moving animal in the area.

How can fishing during spawning season be justified? Studies show a constant decrease of the average fish size, with more and more juveniles caught, as the adults don't have time to reproduce.

The results of this large scale fisheries is not only the devastation of a fish population, but other animals who are also at risk and targeted by this frenetic activity, including the shy and elusive vaquita marina. This small porpoise only lives on the coast of San Felipe, in the Gulf of California, and is considered the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Its habitat has been fragmented by gill nets, to the point of bringing the numbers of vaquita down to only 30 individuals. This species is now on the verge of extinction.

Gill nets, which have been forbidden in the upper part of the Gulf since 2015, are mainly used to fish another endangered, endemic animal of the Gulf: the totoaba bass, sought for its bladder, and not for its meat. This bladder is sold at high value on the black market in China and Hong Kong, and the rest of this predator is thrown back, bleeding, in to the sea.

These banned gill nets are the cause of death of many animals that get trapped in them, including the vaquita. Last year the only sightings of this marine mammal were three dead individuals whose cause of death was determined by scientists as being due to entanglement in gill nets, which traps them and prevents them to come up to the surface for air. They literally suffocate to death.

Efforts are being made in order to keep the refuge a safe place from the nets. It is therefore imperative that adequate law enforcement measures are put in to place, including, reporting illegal activity in the area and apprehending those engaged in it. Sea Shepherd is committed to keep patrolling and monitoring the refuge, and to remove every illegal net encountered.

The Gulf of California is a stunning place where the desert is bathed by a beautiful sea, often described as the aquarium of the planet. If our relationship to it doesn't change immediately, it will soon be turned into an open-air cemetery, reminiscent of a world that once was, and is no more.

Raffaella Tolicetti is the ship manager on the M/V Sam Simon. The M/V Sam Simon and the M/V Farley Mowat are in the Gulf of California for Operation Milaro III.

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