In one of the longest campaigns in Sea Shepherd's history, Operation Milagro III concluded its six-month operation in Mexico's Gulf of California to protect the near-extinct vaquita porpoise and the endangered totoaba bass.
Two Sea Shepherd vessels, the M/V Farley Mowat, along with the M/Y Sam Simon, spent the last six months patrolling the vaquita refuge in the upper gulf, retrieving illegal gillnets that trap and kill the vaquita and totoaba, along with other marine wildlife. Together, the two ships removed 233 illegal fishing gear including 189 totoaba nets, 27 shrimp and corvina nets and 17 long lines.
In February, scientists announced that only about 30 vaquita remained left in their habitat. This is half the amount that was previously recorded in 2015, making the vaquita the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
Sadly, during Operation Milagro III, Sea Shepherd discovered five dead vaquita. Their deaths are attributed to being caught in gillnets set up by poachers to trap the totoaba bass, whose swim bladder is prized for unsubstantiated medicinal properties in China and Hong Kong, where it sells for tens of thousands of dollars. Once vaquita become entangled in these gill nets, they are unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing them to drown.
But the nets do not discriminate. During the campaign, the crew removed 1,195 dead animals—among them sharks, dolphins, whales, turtles and sea lions—and released 795 live ones. Watch this video detailing facts and figures.
Removing Illegal Gillnets
Throughout the campaign, Sea Shepherd used radar and drones to nab poachers in the act, contacting authorities who could then make arrests. The ships also gathered information on the location of the nets to retrieve them from the sea. The nets are subsequently destroyed, separated and then handed over to NGO Parley for the Oceans for recycling.
"If we had not been there, if we were unable to have removed those nets, the vaquita would now be extinct," said Milagro Campaign leader, Captain Oona Layolle. "Milagro means miracle and we intend to do all we can to perform this miracle because there is nothing more noble, more satisfying, and more important than to save a species from extinction."
Meanwhile, the Farley Mowat continued its presence through June, and will keep working in collaboration with local fishermen, the Mexican government, and marine scientists to retrieve all ghost nets from past fishing seasons. It is now headed to San Diego, California where it where it will offer free ship tours to the public from July 1 - July 4.
About Operation Milagro
Sea Shepherd's inaugural Operation Milagro brought much-needed attention to the plight of the vaquita, spawning groundbreaking efforts to protect this imperiled species. On April 18, 2015, Sea Shepherd crew members documented the first recorded sighting of a vaquita since 2013, shattering claims by some locals that the species is already extinct. The resulting video made national headlines in Mexico, prompting the government to reach out to Sea Shepherd.
The following month, a partnership between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican government was announced and since then, the two sides have worked together to protect the vaquita. Sea Shepherd's dedication to save this porpoise has garnered international attention and its work has been documented on 60 Minutes, CNN, Al Jazeera, The National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune, NPR and more.
So far, Sea Shepherd's efforts clearing the bottom of the ocean of ghost nets has been effective in removing another 160 nets since October 2016, preventing them from actively killing marine life.
After Sea Shepherd's third consecutive year in the Gulf of California, the total number of illegal nets retrieved over the three campaigns is 452.