Report from Carolina A Castro on the Successful 2015 Operation Milagro 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 vaquita, the world’s smallest cetacean, is found only in the northernmost tip of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100 individuals of this beautiful species remaining in the sea today. 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 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.
About the vaquita:
- The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
- Estimates based on acoustic research indicate that there are approximately 30 vaquita remaining.
- Of the 30 individuals, it is estimated that less than half are reproductive age females.
- The vaquita inhabit only the waters of the upper Gulf of California.
- The vaquita population has decreased by 18.5-% per year in recent years.
- The government of Mexico, determined to prevent the vaquita's extinction, enacted a two-year moratorium on fishing with gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat.
- The vaquita is also known as the “smiley panda of the sea” because of the dark circles around its eyes and mouth.
- Vaquita have a comparatively short lifespan of approximately 20 years compared to other porpoises and have never been held in captivity. With a slower rate of reproduction than that of other porpoises – they birth up to only one calf every two years – these petite porpoises are being wiped out faster than they can reproduce.
Operation Milagro Campaign Leader Captain Oona Layolle established the goals of the first leg of the campaign:
- To investigate and document the dire situation of the vaquita, including the legal and illegal fishing activities that threaten the survival of the species.
- Establish alliances with scientists and non-governmental organizations working on the issue to join forces to save the vaquita.
- Document a living vaquita to refute the popular belief in the area that the vaquita are already extinct and no longer in need of protection. (Many Mexican fishermen and locals believed the species was already extinct prior to Sea Shepherd’s arrival because the last official documented sighting of a vaquita had been in 2013).
- To establish an alliance with the government to do inside the vaquita’s marine refuge what Sea Shepherd does best: patrol protected marine areas and deter illegal fishing.
With these goals in mind, and knowing that the fate of this highly endangered marine species is intertwined with ours, the crew of Sea Shepherd's research vessel the R/V Martin Sheen set sail from California destined for the Sea of Cortez to investigate and gather information on how we can best help this imperiled cetacean.
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.
Arriving in the Sea of Cortez was an exciting experience for the crew of the R/V Martin Sheen. Despite being veteran sailors, none of the crew had ever been to the Sea of Cortez. Jacques Cousteau once called this remarkable sea "the aquarium of the world." Upon our arrival, the crew confirmed that this bio-diverse area, where many species come to reproduce or give birth to and nurse their young, needs to be preserved and protected. Two species only found in the Sea of Cortez are the totoaba bass (totoaba macdonaldi) and the vaquita (Phocoena sinus).
As Sea Shepherd arrived in the vaquita's refuge, the crew observed rampant illegal fishing activity, even in broad daylight. The R/V Martin Sheen arrived at the end of the September to March shrimp season. Although it is legal for many of the fishing boats to fish for shrimp in the area, it is illegal to fish within the vaquita's refuge. Unfortunately, there was no enforcement of any kind.
The vaquita's protected refuge was established in 2005 in an attempt to stop the vaquita 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.
In addition to the illegal fishing occurring within the refuge, Sea Shepherd discovered several dead dolphins floating on the surface of the sea. A large algae bloom of red tide was occurring as the R/V Martin Sheen crew conducted their research. A crew member and trained veterinarian collected samples taken from the water and the dolphins. These samples were provided to both Mexican and American scientists for analysis in the hope that they will be able to determine what caused the death of the dolphins.
This collaborative endeavor helped to solidify the relationship between Sea Shepherd and Mexico’s scientific community working towards the conservation of the vaquita. Sea Shepherd also developed strong positive relationships with other non-governmental organizations working on this important issue.
The R/V Martin Sheen crew was present when Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico, spoke in San Felipe to announce the long-awaited enactment of a two-year moratorium on gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. The Mexican government has taken steps to try to save the vaquita for several years; this moratorium is the most progressive action to date and Sea Shepherd commends this crucial initiative by the Mexican government to protect the country's biodiversity. At the press conference, the President also presented speedboats to the military for use in its patrols of the refuge.
The R/V Martin Sheen spent three months in and around the refuge, anxiously waiting to spot a vaquita. These porpoises are shy. They do not jump like most dolphins and are not seen in pods, but rather in very small groups of just two or three individuals. After the gillnet moratorium began and the navy ships began patrolling the refuge, fishing activity in the vaquita's refuge stopped; the Sea Shepherd crew could finally concentrate on finding a vaquita. On the second day of naval patrols of the vaquita's refuge, the crew observed naval ships towing two fishing pangas out of the refuge for fishing illegally inside the protected area. This positive sight renewed our energy to search for the vaquita. In the same area where the last sighting occurred in 2013, and at approximately 10:00 AM on April 18, 2015, the crew spotted two vaquitas. By documenting these endangered marine mammals, Sea Shepherd has shown the world that there is still hope – and that a reason still exists to keep working toward a miracle for the vaquita.
Following Sea Shepherd’s release of the images of the vaquita, Operation Milagro and the presence of the R/V Martin Sheen made major headlines throughout Mexico and prompted a response from the Mexican government. Prior to the announcement of the gillnet ban, the R/V Martin Sheen Captain Oona Layolle sent a letter to the Mexican government, offering Sea Shepherd’s assistance to help patrol the vaquita's extended refuge. Due to the public awareness garnered by capturing these new images of the vaquita, Captain Layolle was invited to Mexico City to meet with government ministers and officially establish a partnership between Sea Shepherd and the government of Mexico to protect the vaquita.
Captain Layolle returned from the trip with the great news that the efforts of the Operation Milagro crew were well received by the government, and that the Mexican government is happy to have Sea Shepherd as an ally in its dedicated efforts to ensure that the vaquita will swim in the Sea of Cortez for many years to come.
Thanks to our crew and our generous supporters, Sea Shepherd has been able to achieve all of the goals set forth for the first leg of Operation Milagro. However, our job is not yet done. Sea Shepherd will return to the Sea of Cortez at the beginning of the next fishing season in the fall of 2015 with the right tools and the right vessels to best help the government of Mexico in its patrols against illegal fishing activities within the vaquita’s protected refuge. Sea Shepherd will not let the vaquita down.
Photos from Operation Milagro 2015