In the northern Gulf of California, Sea Shepherd and the Mexican Government have joined forces to fight for two species on the brink of extinction. The first is a large sea bass called the totoaba that is poached exclusively for its swim bladder. Dubbed “aquatic cocaine,” this organ can fetch in excess $10,000 per kilo on the Chinese black market. This lucrative illegal trade has been unintentionally fueling the demise of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita marina. Sadly this small, shy porpoise is being entangled and drowned out of existence in the nets of the totoaba poachers and time to act is running out – scientists have recently concluded that just 60 of these vaquita are left.
With a sailboat named the Martin Sheen, Sea Shepherd launched Operation Milagro, a campaign to protect the vaquita, in February 2015. At the time, illegal fishing was rampant, with pangas and trawlers casting nets freely within the boundaries of the Vaquita Refuge. Sea Shepherd focused on assessing the situation and building relationships with marine scientists, NGOs and various Mexican authorities. By the end of May, the groundwork for future cooperation and action was laid.
Collaboration to Save the Vaquita
On April 16, 2015, the Mexican Government, following advice from international marine scientists, called a two-year ban on commercial fishing utilizing gillnets and longlines from small boats operating in the northern Gulf of California. The Navy swept in and illegal activities were quickly diminished, at least in the light of day. But the lure of easy money with little risk of apprehension or punishment meant poachers went nocturnal.
In May, the totoaba migrated south out of the vaquita habitat and with them the poachers. For the next few months, the vaquita enjoyed a brief respite from their greatest threat.
Operation Milagro II saw Sea Shepherd return with the Martin Sheen and a former US Coast Guard vessel called the Farley Mowat in November 2015. After finding a humpback whale dead in a totoaba net, Sea Shepherd secured permission from the Mexican government to remove illegal fishing gear. Using a specially devised grappling hook, the ships swept the sea to find and confiscate illegal gear. Over the course of the campaign 42 gillnets and 16 longlines were seized. From these, a humpback whale, seven totoaba, fifty five rays, dozens of sharks and other species were released alive.
At night the Sea Shepherd ships patrolled the refuge, interrupting countless poaching activities and even capturing evidence using a drone equipped with a thermal camera. All suspicious pangas were reported to the Mexican Navy.
Nonetheless, three vaquita were found dead. Scientists determined that they had all drowned in nets.
With the population at 60 individuals, this represents a decline of more than 92 percent since 1997.
At this rate, the vaquita will be extinct within five years, according to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, or CIRVA.
The Fight Continues
Despite all that the government of Mexico has invested in the protection of the vaquita, loopholes and corruption make it possible for poachers to bypass control measures. Poachers mask their activities behind licenses for corvina fishing and sport fishing or simply claim they are transiting.
To better protect the vaquita, the temporary gill net ban introduced in 2015 must be made permanent and enforcement strengthened. Allowing the gillnet ban to expire after two years would mean that all financial investments and efforts in the protection of the vaquita thus far have been in vain. Scientists have found that female vaquitas of reproductive age only have a calf every other year and that the expected growth rate of the entire population is around three percent per year. Put simply, the vaquita must be protected for decades in order to recover.
Aside from the vaquita, the impact of nets and longlines on biodiversity in the region has been disastrous. Sea Shepherd has documented the death of dolphins, whales, rays, and even a great white shark measuring thirteen feet.
Ending the Illegal Trade to Save a Species
It is important that efforts be made not only in Mexico but also in China to end the illegal totoaba trade. Stopping the demand is the most efficient way to eradicate this serious issue that threatens two endangered species.
Conservation efforts for the vaquita aim to help the future of the communities living around the Gulf of California, so their children can live in a healthy environment, and so life can continue on our planet.
Without a living sea, we all die.
It is essential to our survival to take care of all marine species, for the oceans to stay healthy and alive. Studies around the world have already demonstrated that true marine reserves allow fish populations to recover and flourish, increasing the number of fish available outside the reserve as well. In short, truly protected areas benefit all species, including humans.
Losing the vaquita is taking one step closer to our own extinction; each species we wipe from existence weakens the web of life. If the oceans die, we die. Fighting for the vaquita and all endangered species is fighting for life on our planet. Education of the population is essential to understand the importance of our environment.
Where hope remains, Sea Shepherd will continue fighting. November 2016 will mark the beginning of Operation Milagro III. Other marine mammals have recovered from even lower populations. The Guadalupe fur seal is one of them. They were down to 14 individuals and are now more than 10,000 because of the protection granted and enforced by the Mexican Government. The same can happen for the vaquita, but hopefully before they reach such desperately low numbers.
We can all take action by sharing information on the subject to educate the population, and donate to Sea Shepherd to continue the campaigns necessary to save these species. It is important that humanity starts to consider the impact our actions have on our lives and environment over the course of time. Humanity must think before acting so that this scenario won’t ever happen again.
Image source: Por Flip Nicklin, Minden Pictures/National Geographic Creative