“Milagro” means “miracle” in Spanish – and thus, Operation Milagro is a very appropriate name for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s campaign designed to save the most endangered marine mammal in the world – the vaquita marina porpoise (Phocoena sinus).
The crews of Sea Shepherd’s vessels M/V Sam Simon and M/V Farley Mowat are patrolling in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the only waters on Earth called home by the world’s smallest and rarest cetacean. With a population that has dwindled to an estimated less than 30 individuals, only 25 of whom are believed to be reproductive females, Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro III addresses the urgent need to conserve this imperiled species.
This year, the M/V Sam Simon, is joining the M/V Farley Mowat for the first time on a Milagro campaign.
Sea Shepherd is determined to help this shy and elusive porpoise beat the odds, bringing about a miracle to restore the vaquita population from the brink of extinction.
The organization is partnering with the government of Mexico to protect the waters of the vaquita refuge, patrol for poachers, document issues facing the endangered cetacean, and to collect vital data to share with the scientific community. It will also conduct outreach in the region, meeting with marine biologists, researchers and other NGOs working locally to save the vaquita.
Gillnets are the biggest threat to the vaquita
The biggest threat to the vaquita is presented by fishermen that use gillnets. The area inhabited by this endangered porpoise is surrounded by three fishing villages. The main method of fishing in the area is with small skiffs (pangas) that lay gillnets with bouys for several hours at a time. These indiscriminately destructive gillnets are normally made with transparent or green nylon. Combined with the murky quality of the water in the upper Gulf of California, these nets are nearly invisible to the vaquita. As they swim within the marine refuge, the porpoises often become entangled in the nets and are unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing them to suffocate.
The vaquita has been listed as critically endangered since 1996. Scientists have been warning for nearly 20 years that the only way to save the vaquita is to eliminate the presence of gillnets in the only region that this species calls home.
A protected refuge for the vaquita was established in 2005 in an attempt to stop this marine mammal from falling victim as by-catch in the deadly gillnets. Unfortunately, due to a lack of enforcement, this measure failed to solve the problem and the vaquita population declined even further. In the past few years the totoaba fishery resurged in the region, fueling the decline of the vaquita population to the never-before-seen rate of an astounding 18.5% each year.
The totoaba bass is another endangered marine species native to the upper Gulf of California. The totoaba’s story, like that of the vaquita, is a sad one and is tightly intertwined with the story of San Felipe, the fishing town nearest to the vaquita's territory. San Felipe was essentially founded because of the totoaba fishery. The totoaba were once an abundant and large fish, weighing up to 300 pounds and growing to more than six feet long. Now, with so few left, it is very rare to spot a totoaba that weighs even 70 pounds. They were hunted to near extinction in the 1960s. Even then, the fishermen were after the totoaba for their swim bladder. The swim bladder is exported from Mexico and sold on the black market in China where it is used for a soup believed to have medicinal properties.
Since 1975, the totoaba has been protected in Mexico when it was listed as an endangered species due to the mad hunt for its swim bladder. In the past few years, the totoaba population made a small comeback; unfortunately, this recovery motivated illegal fisherman and the Mexican criminal cartels to target the endangered fish once more to export the fish's swim bladder for sale on the black market in China. The resurgence of this market has been devastating not only for the totoaba, but for the dwindling vaquita population. The totoaba fishery resurgence has accelerated the decline of the vaquita from 7.5% annually to 18.5% annually. The gillnets set for totoabas are of a mesh greater than six inches, making their use illegal. The use of these gillnets also makes it more likely for the vaquita to become entangled and drown.