May. 11, 2017 11:19AM EST
A seismic survey vessel. CGG Veritas
On Feb. 25, while patrolling the waters of the Gulf of California for Operation Milagro III, the M/V Sam Simon sailed through a megapod of dolphins with numbers estimated to be more than 1,000 individuals.
The elation and joy of this sight comes with the realization that many of these dolphins' lives will be cut short due to illegal gill nets. Sea Shepherd will stay in the Gulf of California until we pull out every last illegal gill net, ensuring the safety of the inhabitants who call these waters home.
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.
By Claire Douglass
The Obama administration formally denied today all pending permits to conduct seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. Seismic airgun blasting, an extremely loud and dangerous process used to search for oil and gas deposits deep below the ocean's surface, was originally proposed in an area twice the size of California, stretching from Delaware to Florida.
A controversial, last-ditch plan to round up the last remaining vaquitas—a critically endangered porpoise found only in the Sea of Cortez—may get underway this spring with the aid of U.S. Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins. The vaquitas would be placed in a protected enclosure while efforts are made to get illegal fishing in the area under control.
Their numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. There were 567 individuals in 1997, 245 in 2008 and just under 100 in 2014. The report puts a high probability on extinction within five years.
Vaquita refuge established in 2005 where gillnet fishing is prohibited.National Geographic
The Mexican government has been working with local fishermen to save the species. In 2005, Mexico established a refuge off San Felipe in the Gulf of California. Gillnet fishing was banned in the refuge. The government is spending $74 million to compensate fishermen and encourage them to use safer fishing methods.
For a time, it worked. Although the population continued to decline, it did so at a slower rate. Scientists hoped it would soon turn around and begin to recover.
But they didn't count on China.
The country's newly-minted millionaires stimulated a demand for dried fish bladders. Called fish maw, they are alleged to possess medicinal properties including the ability to increase fertility. The source of those fish bladders: the Mexican totoaba, a critically endangered fish found in the same waters as the vaquita.
Totoaba bladders are worth up to $5,000 per kilogram and can command as much as $100,000 on the black market in China, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency. They can be found at retailers in major Chinese cities as well as online sites such as Alibaba. Poachers often take their boats out at night, and use gillnets under the cover of darkness to round up as many totoaba as they can. The vaquita are merely bycatch, caught up in the nets where they often drown or die from stress.
Fish maw wholesaler in Shantou, China (c) EIAEnvironmental Investigation Agency
Details of the plan to save the vaquita are still being worked out.
Plans may involve using dolphins from the Navy Marine Mammal Program, which has studied, trained and deployed these highly intelligent animals since the 1950s. Dolphins would be used to help locate vaquitas. They would then be coaxed into lightweight surface gillnets. It's never been done before with vaquitas, but harbor porpoises in Greenland have been captured safely in a similar manner.
Ropes and bouys entangle a young, endangered right whale bear the U.S./Canada border in the Gulf of Maine.Campobello Whale Rescue
A study by the New England Aquarium in Boston, released earlier this month, revealed that the critically-endangered whales are threatened by a dramatic increase in lethal entanglements with fishing gear. Only 500 remain in the ocean.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of three right whale species in the world's oceans, the other two being the Pacific right whale and Southern right whale. They are distinct species and do not interbreed. Like blue whales and humpbacks, right whales are baleen whales that get their food by filtering large quantities of water through plates of baleen, which act like a strainer. They can consume more than 2,600 pounds of tiny zooplankton and krill per day.
Right whales have led a hard life for the last 1,000 years. That's when the earliest hunting of whales began, and they owe their name to the notion that they were the "right whale" to hunt. They tend to stay close to the coast and they are slow swimmers. When killed, they float on the surface. As early as the 1700s, the population of right whales became so decimated that they were no longer commercially significant.
The North Atlantic right whale flirted with extinction by the early 20th century, and whaling for this species became illegal in 1935. But almost 60 years later, there were just 295 whales and the population was well below a sustainable level. In the U.S., they were first listed as an endangered species in 1970, but recovery has been slow and uneven. The most recent data from NOAA Fisheries estimates the population at 465 individuals.
As far back as 1990, ship strikes and entanglement with fishing nets were responsible for one-third of right whale deaths. Now, fishing gear is the dominant cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. The New England Aquarium study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science, reveals that from 2010 to 2015, 85 percent of right whale fatalities were due to entanglements. Ship strikes have declined as a percentage of death since shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy were moved in 2003 and the U.S. lowered ship speed limits in right whale habitats in 2008.
However, efforts to reduce kills from fishing gear have not been successful. Many whales become entangled multiple times, often able to free themselves only to get caught up once more. Young whales become trapped more often than adults. The study's authors echoed a 2016 paper from NOAA Fisheries "that efforts made since 1997 to reduce right whale entanglement have not worked."
North Atlantic right whale.WDC/REGINA ASMUTIS-SILVIA / Whale and Dolphin Conservation
Off Provincetown, Massachusetts, last Thursday, rescuers removed 200 feet of fishing gear and buoys, freeing that one lucky right whale. Attached to one of the buoys was a U.S. fishing license. An investigation is under way.
One of the unlucky dead whales found floating near Boothbay Harbor was an 11-year old female, who was only at the very beginning of her reproductive years. She was well known to scientists, having been tracked and spotted 26 times since 2006. In her short life, her travels had taken her to the Florida waters, Cape Cod Bay, the mid-Atlantic and the Gulf of Maine. She died a long, painful death, with rope wrapped around her head, both flippers and in her mouth.
Seasonal migration of North Atlantic right whales.Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics
It is now about the time that most North Atlantic right whales head south for the winter. Following a spring and summer off Northern New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces, they'll head for the warmer waters near Georgia and Florida. There, females may give birth, but do so only once every three to five years.
On Sept. 15, President Obama created the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument lies to the southeast of Cape Cod, covering some right whale habitat, but at only 4,913 square miles, it protects only a small triangle of a vast ocean.
The authors of the New England Aquarium study put it plainly: "In conclusion, right whales are not yet a conservation success story."
By Judith Lavoie
Last week a small flotilla of boats from Kingcome Village, Gilford Village and Alert Bay, with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's research vessel Martin Sheen in the background, handed eviction notices to four Cermaq Canada salmon farms. Hereditary chiefs said notices will be issued to all 27 farms in their territory.
Hereditary chiefs and supporters from the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw First Nation hold a cleansing ceremony at a Cermaq Canada salmon farm off northern Vancouver Island. The First Nation has issued eviction notices to four farms and say they plan to try to evict all 27 farms in their territory.
With chiefs in traditional robes, drumming and singing, the group ignored efforts by Cermaq employees to prevent them from landing, handed over the notice and then held a cleansing ceremony and wild salmon barbecue at one of the farms.
"Our people have spoken. We want salmon farms out of our territory," said Chief Councillor Willie Moon, the first to pull into the farm off northern Vancouver Island.
Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw consists of five nations, with 576 members, whose territory encompasses the Broughton Archipelago east of Alert Bay. Cermaq and Marine Harvest have farms in the area.
"I just told them they were trespassing and we had every right to be there. This land belongs to our people," Moon said in an interview.
Last spring 40 percent of young salmon leaving the territory were killed by sea lice, Moon said.
Beaches and clam beds are also being polluted, said Melissa Willie, Dzawada'enuxw councillor and fisheries coordinator.
"All that shit going into the water. I don't believe it is being flushed out and the beaches are becoming muck. It's our whole food chain. We want them totally out of our territory and I just hope someone is listening," she said.
Musgamagw Dzawada'enux leaders, who say they have the support of many other coastal bands, are demanding that no more farm fish be transferred into their territory, all farm salmon should be removed within three months, that First Nations have access to the fish so they can assess what diseases exist and the right to have an observer present during harvest.
Two previous attempts to evict the farms have failed and, this time, the First Nation is sending a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to live up to his promise to honor the rights of First Nations as a "sacred obligation."
The letter reads:
"We, the Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw view the destruction of wild fish by the fish farming industry as part of the long history of genocide forced on our people by the governments of Canada. Salmon are essential to our well-being and the well-being of our world."
People are now ready to fight for their traditional way of life, Willie said.
"One of our youth said 'are we prepared to die for this?' I think we are now," she said.
"The fight is on … This is just the beginning."
There has been no support from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who, in 2015, allowed the number of salmon at several farms in their territory to almost triple, even though each tribe had rejected the applications, the leaders said.
After the first eviction notice was issued on Thursday, the leaders received a letter from Cermaq offering to meet them.
"But all they want to talk about are their operations and we are just talking about getting them out. That's the bottom line, so I don't think there's much point," Willie said.
Jeremy Dunn, BC Salmon Farmers Association executive director, said salmon farms in the area have a two-decade history of positive working relationships with First Nations and farmers have 20 social and economic agreements with BC bands.
Those agreements cover 78 percent of the salmon raised in BC, he said.
"Thirty years ago there were no First Nations agreements and salmon farmers were one of the first to put together agreements to respect their territories and to share in the benefits of the activity," Dunn said.
Cermaq is open to meeting with the First Nation to discuss the issue, but having the group landing on the farms has been disconcerting for staff, Dunn said.
"Imagine if 30 people came to your workplace when there are four or five of you in the middle of the ocean. It is challenging," he said.
The eviction notices appear to be part of a campaign being orchestrated by Sea Shepherd, Dunn said.
The "Martin Sheen" crew are helping independent biologist Alexandra Morton on a virus-hunting voyage around salmon farms.
Morton is taking samples to investigate which diseases could be spreading from farmed fish to wild salmon.
Cermaq also suspects Sea Shepherd is behind the eviction notices.
"Over the past few weeks, our employees have been harassed by the Sea Shepherd Society and other activists," says a statement on the Cermaq website.
But Musgamagw Dzawada'enuxw members say their only aim is to cleanse their waters for their children, future generations and ancestors.
"The people who are benefitting from these farms are benefitting over the suffering of our people," said Dzawada'enuxw hereditary leader Farron Soukochoff.