“Ghost nets” are retrieved from the Upper Gulf of California Reserve to save the Vaquita

  • Abandoned or lost fishing nets, known as “ghost nets”, are a threat to vaquita, other endangered species, the ecosystem’s health and navigation
  • In just 21 days, the Mexican Government, with support of local fishermen and NGOs, has retrieved 72 “ghost nets” (including 28 active nets used to fish totoaba) weighing more than 10 tons+

In furtherance of the commitments reached between Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama this past July, and the recommendations of the International Committee for the Vaquita Recovery (CIRVA), on October 10, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico (SEMARNAT), the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) and the Ministry of Defense (SEDENA), together with local fishermen and NGOs, launched an unprecedented program to retrieve “ghost nets” in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico.

The Mexican government´s efforts to retrieve the abandoned nets were joined by PESCA ABC, a fishermen organization from San Felipe, Baja California (habitat of the vaquita), as well as three civil society organizations committed to the sustainable development of the region (World Wildlife Fund-Mexico and Germany, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and “Museo de la Ballena” from La Paz, Baja California Sur) which provided financial, technical and logistic support.

Farley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Rio NavarroFarley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Rio NavarroDuring 21 days (1,500 hours) of search operations covering 11,814 kilometers between October 10 and December 7, a total of 136 abandoned fishing gear were localized, of which 103 were retrieved: 36 illegal gillnets for totoaba (28 active); 36 illegal gillnets for shrimp; 24 longlines to capture totoaba, sharks and other fish (80-500 meter in length, all in bad conditions); and 7 trawl nets and traps. Two live marine turtles, hundreds of fish (including one totoaba) and crustaceans were released; also six totoabas, three marine turtles, rays, more than a thousand different fish and a non-identified marine mammal were found dead.

The goal of this ambitious program, which Mexican authorities plan to continue without interruptions, is to eliminate the serious risk that abandoned gillnets represent for vaquita, a porpoise that only exists in Mexico and that, with only 60 live individuals remaining, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Vaquita is in the brink of extinction due to incidental entanglement in illegal gillnets mainly used to catch totoaba, but also shrimp and other fish in which they drown. The totoaba, which is also threatened by extinction, is a fish found only in Mexico, whose swimming bladder is smuggled mainly through the U.S. border, for its consumption in China.

Ghost nets also impact other endangered species, such as whales, sharks, marine turtles, totoaba and other important commercial species. They are also a threat to navigation in the Upper Gulf of California.

The ghost net retrieval program has the participation of 40 fishermen from San Felipe (Baja California) with 20 small boats (pangas) and 5 large vessels from SEMAR, the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (PROFEPA), the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP), the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the “Museo de la Ballena”.

The ghost net retrieval operation has three phases: (i) detection of nets and marking (using GPS) by local fishermen using towed hooks along previously defined transects; (ii) net retrieval by authorities (PROFEPA, CONANP, SEMAR), in collaboration with NGOs who support with ships and specialized equipment (Sea Shepherd and “Museo de la Ballena”); and (iii) transport, stockpile and destruction of nets and other gear, led by PROFEPA.

Ghost nets are fishing gear abandoned or lost at sea, which may remain adrift for months or years, continuously catching and killing millions of fish, crabs, lobsters, turtles, birds and marine mammals all over the world. Ghost nets affect marine ecosystems and impact the sea bottom, they also represent a threat to navigation.

In addition, if these nets are not retrieved, the chemicals used for their manufacture are incorporated into the marine food chain through their ingestion by marine invertebrates, fish and other species – many with commercial value – affecting not only the ecosystem, but also humans who consume marine products.

According to the United Nations, 640,000 tons of ghost nets are currently floating in the oceans, representing almost 10% of all marine litter. Several UN General Assembly resolutions mandate nations to address this issue through specific actions.

Farley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Matt Sweigart Farley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Matt Sweigart
Farley Mowat crew hard at work retrieving ghost nets. Photo: Sea Shepherd / Matt Sweigart

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