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Gillnets Push Species to the Brink of Extinction

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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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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.