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 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.
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...
The MV Sam Simon and 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...
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...
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 ...
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.
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...
Milagro Summary - English
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Operation Milagro II has come to an end. Milagro is its campaign to fight the looming extinction of the vaquita porpoise, the most endangered marine mammal in the world. With an estimate of less than 100 survivin...
Operation Milagro II: Vlog 15 - Good Bye
Watch the crew of the Farley Mowat capture footage of illegal fishing activity with a night vision drone and pull up a totoaba net in the dead of night. This is the final vlog of Operation Milagro II!
Totoaba Poachers Caught on Camera
Never before seen footage. Sea Shepherd catches critically endangered totoaba poacher in the act. The Sea Shepherd crew filmed these totoaba poachers as they were checking one of their illegal nets in the protected vaquita habitat. The vaquita porpoi...
Operation Milagro II: Vlog 14 - Saving Lives
Watch‬ the routine of our crew doing valuable work in the ‪Sea of Cortez‬. We have been very effective at removing illegal fishing gear from the ‪‎vaquita‬ porpoise's habitat. So much so, that now, most of the time we remove nets and line...
Sea Shepherd finds 3 dead vaquitas in 3 weeks
The Sea Shepherd crew has found 3 dead vaquitas in 3 weeks in the month of march of 2016. The vaquita porpoise is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Learn more at: www.seashepherd.org/milagro2
Operation Milagro II: Vlog 13 - A Really Long Day
The events of the following Vlog occurred on a single day.This was probably the most eventful day we have had on Operation Milagro II. We found a dead entangled dolphin, then a Great White Shark - that most likely bit that dolphin- entangled in the s...
Sea Shepherds finds a dead sample of the most endangered marine mammal in the world
While patrolling the waters of the upper Gulf of California the Sea Shepherd crew found a dead vaquita porpoise. The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the whole world. The crew also found a Great White Shark caught in an illegal gillnet...
Operation Milagro II: Vlog 12 - This is Direct Action
This week, the crew of ‪Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's ships The M/V Farley Mowat and The RV Martin Sheen find and retrieve an illegal totoaba bass long line from the critically endangered ‪vaquita porpoise habitat. The totoaba fish is also ...
Sea Shepherd Crew Save Humpback Whale Entangled in Illegal Gillnet
Sea Shepherd crew rescued a whale entangled in an illegal totoaba gillnet in the Gulf of California. Sea Shepherd currently has two vessels in Mexico's Gulf of California on OPERATION MILAGRO. Our goal is to save the vaquita porpoises, the most endan...
Gregg Lowe on Sea Shepherd's Operation Milagro
You might know Gregg Lowe from X-Men: Days of Future Past, but now watch him explain Sea Shepherd's Operation Milagro and understand why we must save the #VaquitaMarina - The most endangered cetacean in the world. Help us save the vaquita at: http://...