Sea Shepherd Conservation Society located six fishing boats acting illegally in the Gulf of California, ending in their arrest by the Mexican Navy in December. The arrests are part of conservation efforts to ensure the survival of the endangered vaquita porpoise and come as the U.S. Navy is also stepping up efforts to save the mammals.
Vaquitas have among the smallest geographical distribution of any whales, dolphins and porpoises (red box on map below). They live in the northern Gulf of California’s highly productive waters which are also excellent for producing fish and shrimp sold for both domestic and U.S. consumption.
Fishing is a major source of income for the local communities, and gillnets are the most commonly used gear. Gillnets are designed to entangle the targeted fish and shrimp, but vaquitas can also become accidentally wrapped in the nets and drown.
The vaquita population has declined from 567 in 1997 to fewer than 60 today.
The vaquita's fate has long been tied to that of the endangered totoaba, a large fish that grows to over six feet and over 200 pounds. This endangered fish is prized for its swim bladder (an internal air-filled sac that helps the fish maintain buoyancy), which is exported to China where it is used in soup, as traditional medicine and as an investment.
The six fishing boats found by Sea Shepherd were catching totoaba inside a marine reserve in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Fishing for totoaba has been banned by the Mexican government since 1975, but it continues to be hunted by poachers solely for its swim bladder, which is sold on the black market in China for more than $20,000 per kilogram.
When spotted by Sea Shepherd’s Farley Mowat crew, the fishermen began retrieving their nets and fled the scene. The Farley Mowat tracked the boats for about an hour until the Mexican Navy arrived. The poachers attempted to evade capture, giving up only when the Navy approached them with rifles drawn. However, no shots were fired.
The arrested poachers were using shrimp nets – forbidden in the vaquita reserve since 2015 - and totoaba nets, which are banned in Mexico.
The Farley Mowat and the Sam Simon are currently in the Gulf of California as part of Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro III to try and prevent the extinction of the vaquita.
The U.S. Navy is also involved in ensuring the survival of the vaquita. Bottle-nosed dolphins will be used by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program to help search for the porpoises. The plan is to capture live vaquitas, something that hasn’t been achieved before, and keep them in a protective pen off the coast of San Felipe.