On January 15, 2016, the crew of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's vessel the M/V Farley Mowat removed an illegal gillnet in the Gulf of California's vaquita porpoise habitat. This is the first gillnet recovered during Operation Milagro II since the Mexican government authorized Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to remove gillnets and other illegal fishing gear.
Sea Shepherd launched Operation Milagro II in November 2015 with the objective of stopping the extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise. For the past seven weeks, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's research vessel the R/V Martin Sheen has patrolled the vaquita habitat to stop poachers from deploying gillnets that are known to indiscriminatingly catch any species of fish or shark and drown marine animals and birds. The M/V Farley Mowat just arrived in the Gulf of California to assist the R/V Martin Sheen.
The vaquita are the smallest of cetaceans and only inhabit the northernmost part of the Gulf of California. They are one of the most endangered marine mammals. Scientists estimate that there are less than 97 surviving vaquita. Although all gillnets are dangerous for vaquita, the greatest threats to vaquita are the gillnets used to catch the totoaba fish due to the size of the opening of the mesh of the nets. As a similar sized animal, vaquita who swim into these gillnets become entangled and drown. Both the totoaba and vaquita are listed as endangered and protected in Mexico. However, the black market trade in the totoaba's fish bladder drives the poaching of the fish and is driving the extinction of the vaquita. In an effort to save the vaquita, in April 2015, the Mexican government enacted a two year ban on the use of gillnets in a 13,000 square kilometer area covering the entire northern part of the Gulf of California
The M/V Farley Mowat spotted the illegal gillnets on its first day patrolling the vaquita habitat. A former United States Coast Guard Cutter, the M/V Farley Mowat is a fast interceptor ship, designed for coastal patrols and capable of quickly locating and approaching with speed. The ship is also equipped with a small rigid inflatable speed boat, a crane, and a newly constructed net removal device.
“With my experience chasing poaching vessels in the Southern Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, as well as patrolling the Gulf of California in early 2015, I am confident that the R/V Martin Sheen and the M/V Farley Mowat would be able to patrol the gillnet-free zone to help ensure that gillnets are not used,” commented Campaign leader Captain Oona Layolle, captain of the M/V Farley Mowat.
Upon spotting the gillnet, the crew of the M/V Farley Mowat immediately began retrieving it and the Mexican Navy was notified. For more than six hours, the crew of the M/V Farley Mowat worked alongside the Mexican Navy to retrieve the nets.
Captain Layolle continued, “With the help of the Mexican Navy, we were able to remove approximately one and a half miles of gillnets and release twelve dogfish sharks. Unfortunately, the gillnet was in the water for at least several days and killed approximately sixty dogfish sharks, as well as three species of juvenile sharks, including two species of protected hammerhead sharks. Sea lions were also seen eating totoaba from the gillnet.”
Despite the two year ban on the use of gillnets, enforcement in such a large area is difficult. With its two vessels patrolling the Gulf of California, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society hopes for the miracle of the survival of the vaquita porpoise.
Operation Milagro II
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