Sea Shepherd society protecting endangered marine species in the Sea of Cortez

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society ships M/Y Farley Mowat and M/Y Sam Simon are in the Sea of Cortez (a.k.a. the Gulf of California) for Operation Milagro III.

The purpose of Operation Milagro III is to protect two endangered species, the totoaba fish and the vaquita porpoise. As the name implies, this is the third season that the Sea Shepherd society has been in the Sea of Cortez.

The threat to totoabas is poaching. The demand comes from China, where their swim bladders are considered to have medicinal value. Mexican organized crime organizations have stepped up to meeting this demand, by using illegal gillnets to catch them. These gillnets are deadly to the vaquitas, who are unable to see them in the murky water of the Sea of Cortez. Their population has been estimated to be 60.

Mexico has regulations in place protecting vaquitas, and the Mexican Navy and the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) have been making an effort to enforce them. As is almost always the case, their resources are insufficient to deal with the problems, so the Sea Shepherd society is on the scene to help out. They patrol for illegal activity, and when they spot it, they communicate the position to the Navy.

The week of December 11 was an especially busy one for the Farley Mowat. One of her activities is to troll for gillnets. They found and destroyed 15-20 of them during a two-day period. This was only about a fifth of the number that were in the water. These nets are generally 70 meters in length. They were turned over to PROFEPA. During the same period, the Navy and PROFEPA confiscated eight small boats, known as “pangas”, used to put out and bring in the gillnets. (Story in Spanish.)

The confiscation of the pangas repeats another story all too familiar to environmental activists. The pangas belong to local people, based in the Gulf of Santa Clara, at the north end of the Sea of Cortez. They are trying to make a few pesos doing hard work to support their families. As you can imagine, they weren’t happy about having their boats taken away. The real money is made by the organized crime groups who actually sell the totoabas to the Chinese.

In September, J.P. Geoffroy, a Chilean campaign leader for Operation Angel de la Guarda, another Sea Shepherd campaign in the Sea of Cortez, received an anonymous threatening phone call. The caller knew Geoffroy’s home address and the names of his mother and daughter. Geoffroy is no longer on the scene, and the Sea Shepherd society has taken security measures as a result. However, they have not complied with the caller’s demand that their ships not travel south within the Sea of Cortez, and they will remain on the scene through June, 2017.

Mexican Navy boat; gillnets being pulled in in foregroundThe M/Y Sam Simon is a 180-feet former Japanese weather survey ship. It was launched in 1992, and acquired by the Sea Shepherd society in 2012. It has been used in all three Operation Milagro’s, as well as Operation Relentless, a campaign against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. The Captain is Oona Isabelle Layolle of France, and she is also the Campaign Leader of Operation Milagro III. She has been with the Sea Shepherd society for six years, and has served in all three Operation Milagro’s. Prior to joining the Sea Shepherd society, she was a commercial captain in the Mediterranean and the Pacific.

The M/Y Farley Mowat is a 110-feet former U.S. Coast Guard ship cutter, built in 1991, and acquired by the Sea Shepherd society in 2015. It can travel at an impressive 30 knots.

The combined crew of the two ships is 40, and they come from 20 different countries.

Captain Paul Watson Facebook page

Hammerhead shark caught in gillnet. It's even more
deadly for marine mammals.

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