Sea Shepherd’s fight to save the vaquita porpoise

By Ines Amarelo

San Felipe, Mexico, Apr 5 (EFE).- On board two boats belonging to the non-governmental organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, defenders of the environment are working 24 hours a day hand in hand with Mexican government authorities to save the almost-extinct vaquita porpoise in the upper Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.

The most recent scientific study – conducted in October and November 2021 with the vessels MV Sharpie and MV Narval – managed to detect seven or eight adult vaquita porpoises and one or two juveniles.

“They were able to find (them) and confirm it, but there could be other vaquita that we don’t know about – hopefully there (are). It’s a big place … When you see it on a map it’s one thing, but when you’re here it’s a huge, huge area,” said Sea Shepherd president Pritam Singh in an interview with EFE.

With that, despite the drastic reduction in the numbers of the marine mammal in recent years, environmentalists are holding out hope that, thanks to Sea Shepherd’s tireless work and the cooperation of the Mexican authorities, this species’ numbers will gradually increase.

“It’s very possible that there are other vaquita here. We were able to identify that, which was very good because then we had solid evidence. So we’re very hopeful, especially when we see breeding going on, that the vaquita can recover. … I think this has been an extraordinary year. A real change,” Singh added.

Since January 2022, Sea Shepherd and Mexico’s Navy Secretariat have been working on a new joint effort that has resulted in a substantial reduction in the number of fishing boats in the Zero Tolerance Zone and the amount of time that they can keep their nets in the water, according to what officials said at a press conference in San Felipe, a town in Mexico’s northwestern Baja California state.

Operation Miracle is in the middle of its eighth campaign with the Sharpie and the John Paul DeJoria, the boats that are monitoring the Zero Tolerance Zone, a perimeter in the upper gulf where no other boats are allowed.

In addition, they are removing fishing nets that they find drifting in the water and which could trap vaquita porpoises, the marine mammal that is closest to extinction, but also “totoabas,” a fish that sells for exorbitant amounts, given that assorted medicinal properties are ascribed to it in Chinese folk medicine.

The totoaba is prohibited from being marketed, but there are still people who try to do so and that harms the vaquita porpoises, which can get trapped in the nets, along with other species like turtles, dolphins and sharks.

Getting caught in fishing nets is the greatest documented threat to the survival of the species.

Thus, very early each morning on the only registered access ramp for fishermen, the Navy Secretariat (Semar) along with other authorities like the National Aquaculture and Fishing Commission (Conapesca) review the permits of the fishermen and their equipment to verify that their work will not harm the porpoises.

One of the fishermen who goes through the process each morning and preferred not to give his name in an interview with EFE said that the measures and controls are positive developments.

He said that if they find a vaquita porpoise in their nets, they must release it “so that they can reproduce more.”

And he added that if fine-line regulation nets are used, both the totoaba and the vaquita can break the net and thus avoid being trapped.

Another fisherman said that the monitoring activities are positive because they protect the work of those who have all their papers in order, but he added that the same checks should be done elsewhere, since other boats are going out to fish without any controls.

“Lots of boats go out that don’t have a permit and that affects those who do have one,” he said.

Aside from the constant vigilance at sea and the checks at the ramp, there are many other ways that the authorities are trying to ensure that fishing in the zone complies with established rules and regulations.

For example, several daily sea, land and air patrols are mounted to monitor the fishing nets and, among other things, they scout for nets that might have washed up on the beaches.

“The activities that (Semar) is undertaking are to enforce the law in the coastal zone, and we’re providing escorts and security for Profepa (the Federal Environmental Protection Prosecutor’s Office) and Conapesca so that they can conduct their work, which is to inspect,” a navy sailor named Garcia told EFE during one of the land patrols in San Felipe.

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