Scientists Barbara Taylor and Jay Barlow crew Sequence. Photo: Roy SasanoPoaching at night. Photo: Roy SasanoSAN FELIPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA MEXICO – On April 15, 2016 at 0053 hrs, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society captured never before seen footage of totoaba poachers caught in the act of pulling in their gillnet.

That night, the M/Y Farley Mowat hid in the darkness looking for illegal activity. After identifying the panga on radar, Sea Shepherd used Predator, a quadcopter drone equipped with a FLIR thermal night vision camera. Within minutes, Predator was above the poachers, documenting their illegal activities. The poachers quickly began to flee, pushing the illegal gillnet back into the water and speeding away from the scene of the crime. The M/Y Farley Mowat continued to track the poachers via the drone while relaying the coordinates and headings to the Mexican Navy.

With the chase handed over to the Mexican Navy, the Sea Shepherd crew commenced its search for the illegal gillnet. The custom designed net­snagging device was deployed off the stern and the small boat was launched. The net was located a couple of hours later and the crew began removing it from the water, freeing four live cow­nosed rays. Sadly the net had already claimed the lives of two juvenile hammerhead sharks and a couple of corvina fish.

“Using our night vision drone, Sea Shepherd was able to capture never before seen footage of totoaba poachers operating under the cover of darkness,” stated Roy Sasano, Executive Officer and Drone Pilot from Canada. “Now the poachers know they cannot act with impunity.” In January 2016, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was granted the authority by the Mexican Government to remove illegal gillnets in the Gulf of California. Since then, Sea Shepherd has removed forty gillnets, saving untold numbers of vaquita, totoaba, whales, sharks, dolphins, and other marine wildlife.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society launched Operation Milagro II in November 2015 with the objective of stopping the extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise. The vaquita are the smallest cetaceans and only inhabit the northernmost part of the Gulf of California. They are the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with the population suspected to be only a few dozen individuals. Although all gillnets are dangerous for vaquita, the greatest threat is posed by the gillnets used to catch the totoaba fish due to the size of the mesh. As a similar sized animal, vaquita who swim into these gillnets become entangled and drown. Both the totoaba and vaquita are listed as critically endangered and are protected in Mexico. However, the black market trade in totoaba swim bladders drives the poaching of the fish and is driving the extinction of the vaquita porpoise. 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 a large portion of the northern Gulf of California.

Drone pilot Roy Sasano flies night drone. Photo: Ognjen MilovicDrone pilot Roy Sasano flies night drone. Photo: Ognjen Milovic

Daniel Villa and Roy Sasano getting ready to launch predator. Photo: Ognjen MilovicDaniel Villa and Roy Sasano getting ready to launch predator. Photo: Ognjen Milovic

Juvenile hammerhead shark caught in gillnet. Photo: Carolina A CastroJuvenile hammerhead shark caught in gillnet. Photo: Carolina A Castro

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