Operation Milagro III - Vaquita Porpoise Defense Campaign

“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 60 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.

Vaquita porpoises. Photo: Paula Olson/NOAAVaquita porpoises. Photo: Paula Olson/NOAA

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.

Vaquita porpoise caught in net. Photo: Cristian Faezi El Golfo de Santa Clara Sonora Mexico Copyright Omar Vidal 700wVaquita porpoise caught in net. Photo: Cristian Faezi, El Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, Mexico. © Omar Vidal

Totoaba Bass

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.

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Milagro III

Operation Milagro III: The Endangered Vaquita Porpoise
ATTENTION! ATTENTION!! Sea Shepherd is making a valiant effort to save the CRITICALLY ENDANGERED Vaquita Porpoise from EXTINCTION. There are fewer than 30 left on Earth. We have to do everything we can to stop the use of illegal gillnets!! Please joi...
Operation Milagro III: Illegal Gillnets
This is a typical day for the Sea Shepherd crew on Operation Milagro III. The Gulf of California is one of the world’s hotspots for marine biodiversity, We will continue our work retrieving illegal nets, giving the unique inhabitants like the near-...
Operation Milagro III: Dead Dolphin Caught in Illegal Gillnet
Illegal gillnets do not discriminate! They are silent death traps that kill all sorts of sea life. Help our efforts to save marine life in the Gulf of California where the The MV Sam Simon and The M/V Farley Mowat are currently patrolling for Operati...
Operation Milagro III: M/V Sam Simon’s Thunder & Viking boats
The Thunder and Viking are two RHIBS (Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boats) on the Sam Simon ship. The agility and speed at which these boats can be launched allows these boats to play a primary role, detecting and retrieving illegal nets in the Gulf of Cal...
Operation Milagro III: Ray Day
On the 17th of April the crew of M/V Farley Mowat retrieved an illegal net with 22 cownose rays entangled inside. Twenty one of the rays were released alive. Unfortunately, one was dead. Every life counts, and every net out of the waters is a success...
Operation Milagro III: A busy 24 hrs
During the 11th and 12th of March, the Milagro III fleet witnessed a stampede of poachers in the Gulf of California. The Farley Mowat and Sam Simon drone pilots were hot in their case, and in some instances, met with fierce resistance from the poache...
Operation Milagro III: Using Drones to Nab Poachers
On Operation Milagro III, drones have proven to be one of the most valuable assets we have battling poaching in the Gulf of California. Many thanks to our donor, Clarence Stanback, whose generosity has enabled us to create a drone program at Sea Shep...
Op. Milagro III: The Totoaba Bass
The endangered totoaba has a long history in the Gulf of California. Watch this Sea Shepherd video to learn more about this fish and why its swim bladder is targeted by poachers.
Operation Milagro III: Wildlife of the Gulf of California
The stunning biodiversity of life in the Gulf of California is what keeps us going and what are here to protect. Poachers may try to do everything in their power to get us to leave. But we are here for our clients and we are not going anywhere. Suppo...
Operation Milagro III: Facing Death
During a single patrol in Mexico’s Gulf of California, the crew of the M/V Farley Mowat encountered two dead whales, 24 dead dolphins, a dead sea lion, and countless dead birds. The near-extinct vaquita and the endangered totoaba is not the only vi...
Op. Milagro III: Dolphin and Whale Day in the Gulf of California
While in the gulf of California we see a variety of marine wildlife coexisting with one another. Sights like this one give us hope that this ecosystem still has the potential to remain wild and beautiful as long as we stay vigilant in protecting it.
Op. Milagro III: 66 Dead Totoaba in One Gill-net
On March 14th, the Farley Mowat crew discovered a gill-net approximately 250 metres in length, with 66 endangered totoaba fish. After hours of work, they managed to untangle the catch and hand it to authorities. Sea Shepherd was also granted a glimps...
Op. Milagro III: The MV Sam Simon & the Dolphin Megapod
On February 25, 2017, 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 1000 individuals. The elation and joy of this sight c...
M/V SAM SIMON: Operation Milagro III in the Gulf of California
The M/V Sam Simon has embarked on its inaugural mission to save the near-extinct vaquita, the endangered totoaba and other sea life in the Mexico’s Gulf of California for Operation Milagro III (2016-2017). Learn about the history and abilities of ...
Operation Milagro III: Unprecedented Amount of Illegal Nets Pulled in a 48-Hour Period
Over 1000 Animals Saved - Sea Shepherd’s M/V Farley Mowat and M/V Sam Simon pulled a record number of illegal gillnets – 18 -- in Mexico’s Gulf of California during a 48 hour period, saving and releasing over 1000 marine animals including Hamme...
Op. Milagro III: Biodiversity in the Gulf of California
Once called the World’s Aquarium by Jacques Cousteau, the Gulf of California has always had a high level of endemism. Today, fishing is the main cause of the destruction of its ecosystem. Featuring Sea Shepherd crew and Dr. Roy Houston, professor...
Op. Milagro III: Sea Shepherd Rescues Fisherman in the Gulf of California (with subtitles)
On the night of the 25th, The Farley Mowat came across fishermen in a small panga boat. When approached by The Farley, the fishermen fled at high speed. Some distance from the fishing boat, The Farley crew noticed a large splash as fishing boat come ...
Op. Milagro III: Sea Shepherd vs Poachers in the Gulf of California
Six fishing boats engaged in illegal activities were spotted by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, ending in their arrest by the Mexican Navy.
Op. Milagro III: Ghost Nets Go; Vaquitas Stay
Sea Shepherd and the M/V Farley Mowat break down how illegal underwater nets in the Sea of Cortez are snagged, pulled, cut and bundled. Footage also includes freeing and releasing live animals from the nets and cataloging those who unfortunately did ...
Sam Simon arrives in Mexico for Operation Milagro III
The Sam Simon has arrived in Mexico to join the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society-led campaign, Operation Milagro III. A partnership between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican authorities, Operation Milagro III intercepts, intervenes and interrupts any ill...
Operation Milagro III Campaign Launch Video
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is returning to Mexico’s Gulf of California for Operation Milagro III to save the near extinct vaquita marina porpoise and the endangered totoaba bass. The M/V Farley Mowat is back on active duty with the M/V Sam S...
Sea Shepherd Investigates Whale Corpse in Sea of Cortez
The Farley Mowat Sea Shepherd crew is called out to investigate a dead Brydes whale in the Gulf of California on November 5th, 2016 while patrolling the vaquita refuge. To help the Sea Shepherd crew to continue its work in the Sea of Cortez, includin...
Resumen Operación Milagro II - ESPANOL
La Operación Milagro II de Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ha llegado a su fin. Milagro es una campaña para luchar contra la extinción inminente de la vaquita marina, el mamífero marino más amenazado del mundo. Con menos de 100 vaquitas resta...