On May 3rd, 2016, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society concluded Operation Milagro II, 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 surviving vaquita, Sea Shepherd ships the R/V Martin Sheen and M/V Farley Mowat patrolled the northernmost part of the Gulf of California, Mexico to locate and remove illegal fishing gear that entangle and drown the vaquita.
The two Sea Shepherd ships will be returning to the United States of America, arriving in San Diego, CA and holding a press conference at 1492 N Harbor Dr., San Diego, CA 92101 (north of the San Diego Maritime Museum) on Saturday, May 7 at 8am. Free tours of the ships will be available on May 7 and 8 from 10am-5pm.
In February 2015, Sea Shepherd launched Operation Milagro to investigate the plight of the vaquita porpoise and identify ways to intervene and protect the animals. The R/V Martin Sheen remained in the Gulf of California until May 2015, documenting the use of gillnets - nets that indiscriminately catch any animal that swims into them - as well as building relationships with marine biologists and other non-governmental organizations. In April 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a two year ban on the use of all gillnets in the northern Gulf of California. Shortly thereafter, Sea Shepherd documented the first live vaquita since 2013 and began building a partnership with the Mexican government to protect the vaquita.
In November 2015, Sea Shepherd launched Operation Milagro II. Sea Shepherd dispatched the R/V Martin Sheen and the M/V Farley Mowat to remove illegal gillnets and longlines set to catch the totoaba, a fish similar in size to the vaquita. The totoaba are another critically endangered species targeted by poachers specifically to sell their swim bladders on the black markets in Hong Kong and China. Dubbed “aquatic cocaine”, totoaba swim bladders can sell for more than $20,000 per kilogram in China as a status symbol and for their alleged medicinal properties. Many of the bladders are smuggled through the United States.
In addition to removing illegal fishing gear, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society used aerial drones to document and report poaching activities to the Mexican authorities.
"It was amazing to spot three live vaquita during the course of Operation Milagro II. It gives me such hope that the vaquita can survive if appropriate measures continue to be taken," stated Captain Oona Layolle, Campaign Leader. "We developed net retrieval devices that were so effective that we provided some to the Mexican Navy so that they too could seek out and remove these nets from deeper waters."
During the course of Operation Milagro II, Sea Shepherd removed 42 illegal gillnets and 16 longlines. The campaign saved one humpback whale, seven totoaba, fifty-five rays, dozens of sharks, and countless other marine animals that otherwise would have been caught. Unfortunately, the illegal fishing gear claimed the lives of three vaquitas, dozens of sharks, a four meter long great white shark, as well as many totoabas, rays, and dolphins.
"The partnership with the Mexican Government was productive and certainly made an impact in saving the lives of so many marine animals. We look forward to working more with the Mexican Government in the Gulf of California and other parts of Mexico," continued Captain Layolle.
Sea Shepherd plans to return to the Gulf of California in November 2016 to continue the fight against illegal fishing and to expand our efforts to protect the vaquita. The use of gillnets and longlines has been devastating to the biological diversity of the Gulf of California, often considered one of the most biologically diverse marine areas in the world.