The M/V Farley Mowat.  Photo: Sea ShepherdThe M/V Farley Mowat. Photo: Sea ShepherdOne of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s newest vessels, the M/V Farley Mowat, will soon depart Tampa, Fla. and set sail for Mexico’s upper Gulf of California on its maiden Sea Shepherd campaign voyage, where the ship will join Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro II, to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise.

The Farley Mowat will depart on a date soon-to-be-announced, headed for the upper Gulf of California – the only waters on Earth which are home to the highly endangered vaquita marina porpoise – where the ship will join Sea Shepherd’s research sailing vessel, the R/V Martin Sheen, already on active duty patrolling the vaquita’s habitat. During Operation Milagro II (Operation Miracle) which spans until April 2016, Sea Shepherd is working in partnership with the Mexican government to addresses the urgent need to protect the elusive vaquita before it is too late. The world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal, this species is facing the very real threat of extinction, with only an estimated 97 individuals remaining.

Working with the government of Mexico, Sea Shepherd will patrol the waters of the marine reserve where the vaquita resides and document issues facing the endangered cetacean; monitor the refuge for illegal poaching activity; collect data in order to collaborate and to share with the scientific community; and conduct outreach in the region, meeting with marine biologists, researchers and other NGOs working locally to save the vaquita. The Farley Mowat will bring to the campaign the strength and effectiveness of a fast patrol vessel, complementing the abilities of the Martin Sheen, a vessel well-suited for scientific research for conservation.

The vaquita is particularly vulnerable to population decline, with a slower rate of reproduction than that of other porpoise species – giving birth to only one calf every two years. The species also has a comparatively short lifespan of approximately 20 years. Yet the biggest threat to the vaquitas’ survival is likely the gill nets of illegal poaching operations in which the vaquitas often become by-catch. The gill nets are used to catch the totoaba fish – another critically endangered marine species endemic to the Gulf of California. The totoaba is a prized and highly profitable catch for poachers seeking the fish’s lucrative swim bladder, which is exported from Mexico, often routed through the United States, and sold on the illegal black market in China, where it is served in soup. CIRVA (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita), a committee that includes government agencies, marine biologists and NGOs, reports that fishermen can receive as much as $8,500 USD for just one kilogram of swim bladder. The fish are caught, their bladders are removed, and the rest of each critically endangered totoaba – which can reach two meters in length – is simply left to rot.

Though the situation facing the vaquita is dire, there is hope for a “miracle” for this petite porpoise. In April 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the enactment of a two-year moratorium on gill-net fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. The government has also provided speedboats to the Navy for patrols of the marine reserve. In addition, Mexico is spending more than $30 million USD on efforts, including a net “buy-out” program, to compensate fishermen who agree to stop using gill nets, and strongly encouraging the use of other, less destructive fishing methods.

Launched in March of this year, Sea Shepherd’s inaugural Operation Milagro campaign saw great success in bringing much-needed attention to the plight of the vaquita, spawning groundbreaking efforts to protect this imperiled species. On April 18, Sea Shepherd crewmembers documented the first recorded sighting of a vaquita since 2013, shattering claims by some locals that the species is already extinct and no longer in need of protection. The resulting video made national headlines in Mexico, prompting the government to reach out to Sea Shepherd. The following month, a partnership between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican government was announced, as the two joined forces in efforts to protect the vaquita.

“Aboard the R/V Martin Sheen, Sea Shepherd has already begun to patrol the vaquita’s only habitat on Earth. We look forward to welcoming the crew of the Farley Mowat to the Gulf of California, where the vaquita needs as many watchful eyes as possible patrolling these waters to safeguard the future of this precious marine species. The Farley Mowat will allow Sea Shepherd to be even more effective in monitoring for illegal activities that threaten the vaquita,” said Captain Oona Layolle, Operation Milagro II Campaign Leader.

Sea Shepherd recently unveiled the classic new design of the Farley Mowat, a former U.S. Coast Guard 110-foot Island-class cutter, which can be seen here. Painted white with black details and lettering, and featuring Sea Shepherd’s internationally known “Jolly Roger” logo, the ship also proudly bears the logo of JP’s Peace, Love & Happiness Foundation. The Foundation was created by longtime supporter and dear friend of Sea Shepherd, John Paul DeJoria – also the co-founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems, recognized for making professional salon beauty products and for its commitment to the professional beauty industry – and supports charities that promote environmental sustainability, social responsibility and the protection of animals. DeJoria generously sponsored the purchase of the Farley Mowat, also made possible with a bequest left to Sea Shepherd by Sea Shepherd International Chair and famed Canadian writer and environmentalist Farley Mowat, who passed away in 2014. The crew of the new Farley Mowat includes Bosun Conniss Adam, a crewmember of Sea Shepherd’s original Farley Mowat vessel, active on the high seas from 2002 to 2008

The crew of the Farley Mowat will depart from Tampa, Fla. to join Operation Milagro II soon after hosting the first-ever public ship tours of the new Sea Shepherd vessel Saturday, Dec. 12 through Tuesday, Dec. 15 at the Tampa Convention Center. On these dates, tours will be free and open to the public from 9 am – 6 pm local time.

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