While patrolling the Vaquita Refuge in the Gulf of California on March 4, 2016, crew onboard Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's research vessel the R/V Martin Sheen found a dead vaquita floating in the water. Nearby, the crew also found a dead totoaba bass, along with a dead common dolphin with a hook piercing the body below the pectoral fin.
The vaquita and totoaba are both endangered and protected species. Totoaba are targeted by poachers for their swim bladders while vaquita are often caught and drown in the gillnets used to catch totoaba due to their similar size. Scientists studying the vaquita estimate that there are less than 100 individuals left and that the population is declining at 18.5 percent each year.
In April 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a two year ban on the use of gillnets in a 13,000 square kilometer range of the Gulf of California. Sea Shepherd's ships the R/V Martin Sheen and M/V Farley Mowat, a former United States Coast Guard Cutter, have been patrolling the Vaquita Refuge since Novmber 2015 in an effort to stop poaching of the totoaba and remove any illegal fishing gear to save the vaquita.
In addition to finding the dead vaquita and totoaba on March 4th, 2016, the crew of the M/V Farley Mowat's small boat the Wolf found a dead totoaba just off San Felipe on March 5th. The totoaba's belly was cut open and the swim bladder was removed. This swim bladder can fetch an estimated $20,000 on the illegal wildlife black markets in Asia.
“Finding the dead vaquita was heartbreaking and my biggest fear became reality” commented Operation Milagro campaign leader and M/V Farley Mowat Captain Oona Layolle. “The crew of both Sea Shepherd ships have worked so hard alongside the Mexican authorities to save the vaquita. With so many poachers operating at night, we will increase our night patrols to protect the vaquita.”
Since December 31, 2015, the Mexican government authorized Sea Shepherd to remove gillnets and other illegal fishing gear in the gillnet ban zone. In recent weeks, the crews of the R/V Martin Sheen and M/V Farley Mowat have been successfully dragging specially constructed hooks to find the illegal fishing gear. Just two weeks ago, the crews were able to free a humpback whale entangled in a gillnet set for totoaba.
Following the discovery of the dead bodies of the vaquita and two totoaba in the past two days, the Sea Shepherd crews found the body of another vulnerable animal on March 6, 2016: a great white shark. The shark measured approximately four meters long and was entangled in a totoaba gillnet along with a dead dolphin. The past three days of Operation Milagro demonstrate why all gillnets must be permanently banned. Gillnets are indiscriminate killers, trapping any marine life that comes into contact with them.
Captain Layolle continued, “This may seem like a horrible setback – and it is certainly horrible. But our efforts to save the vaquita will continue, stronger than ever. We are, and will keep, doing our best so these beautiful and shy animals will not become extinct on our watch.”