Sea Shepherd Seizes Fishing Nets Killing a Critically Endangered Porpoise

Illegal gill nets have pushed the vaquita to the edge of extinction.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
Jan 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Sea Shepherd, the renegade environmental group known for its militant tactics, swept into the Gulf of California in Mexico last week and seized fishing nets killing the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

All with the express permission of the Mexican government.

The vaquita is in such dire straits—fewer than 100 survive—that the Mexican government readily approved requests from Sea Shepherd to help enforce a ban on gill nets that are ensnaring the small porpoise.

It took the crew of the Sea Shepherd vessel Farley Mowat more than six hours on Friday to pull in 1.5 miles of net, which had killed 60 dogfish sharks. Two species of protected hammerhead sharks were found in the net as well.

RELATED: This Could Be the Last Chance to Save Mexico's Vaquita Porpoise From Extinction

Many gill nets target another endangered species—the totoaba—a large fish whose swim bladder is a sought-after delicacy in China. But the nets also catch the vaquita, leading Mexican officials to ban the use of the nets for two years across 5,000 square miles in the northern Gulf of California.

Oona Layolle, captain of the Farley Mowat, said the net had likely been in the water for several days before the crew discovered it. Layolle saw sea lions eating totoaba trapped in the gill net as the crew loaded the net onto the ship.

The Farley Mowat, a 110-foot former U.S. Coast Guard vessel, joined Sea Shepherd’s research vessel, the Martin Sheen, this month as part of the group’s “Operation Milagro II,” which aims to protect the vaquita. Conservation groups such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace have been working with Mexican officials to patrol vaquita habitat. Late last year, the Mexican Navy granted Sea Shepherd permission to locate and seize gill nets illegally set inside the preserve, after the group sent in video footage showing a baby humpback whale they found entangled in gill nets.

“Prior to Dec. 25, Sea Shepherd patrolled the gill net ban zone and reported to the Navy the position of any illegal activity,” Layolle said, “The Navy would then come and stop the poachers. But I knew that we could be of better help by retrieving the nets using our new ship.”

Vaquitas are the smallest member of the porpoise family and have been listed as critically endangered in the U.S. and Mexico since 1996. In recent years, increasing demand for totoaba bladders has led to more gill nets in vaquita territory. Scientists estimate that the porpoise population has fallen from 200 porpoises in 2012 to 97 today.

Totoaba bladders can fetch as much as $3,800 a pound on the market in Hong Kong, while anglers only face fines of around $500 and no jail time if they are caught with the fish.

Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a research scientist who leads the international vaquita recovery team, told TakePart in December that Mexico's Congress is working on legislation that would put punishment for totoaba fishing and smuggling on par with cocaine trafficking.

In the meantime, Layolle hopes officials alter the two-year gill net ban to an indefinite one, contingent on a Vaquita recovery.

“Marine scientists estimate that it would take 40 years to rebuild the population to even 2008 levels,” Layolle said. “Our efforts to preserve these beautiful animals must be constant and we must protect the Vaquita for as long as it takes.”