Crew of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Operation Milagro Captures Rare Footage During First View Since 2013 of Critically Endangered Vaquita Porpoise in Sea of Cortez
On April 18, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society captured rare footage of the elusive and endangered vaquita porpoise in the waters of Mexico’s Gulf of California, the small cetacean’s only home on Earth. The sighting marks the first time since 2013 the shy creature has been spotted and filmed in the Sea of Cortez. The vaquita documented by the crew of Sea Shepherd USA’s Operation Milagro (Operation Miracle) campaign is one of only 97 remaining members of its species, considered by many to be the rarest marine mammal in the world.
The Sea Shepherd crew filmed and photographed as they encountered the lone porpoise on April 18, while documenting within the vaquitas’ marine refuge. The footage will be shared with the scientific community to contribute to the vitally important study and understanding of the dwindling vaquita population.
Sea Shepherd has been present in the Sea of Cortez for more than a month, with an international crew of volunteers aboard the research sailing vessel, R/V Martin Sheen. Captain Oona Layolle and her crew are documenting the plight of the vaquita population, collecting data in order to collaborate in efforts dedicated to vaquita conservation. Sea Shepherd has also been conducting outreach in the region, meeting with marine biologists, vaquita experts and other NGOs working locally to save these endangered porpoises from the irreversible fate of extinction.
The smallest of all seven porpoise species, the vaquita is also the smallest cetacean in the world. These petite porpoises are particularly vulnerable to population decline, with a slower rate of reproduction than that of other porpoises – giving birth to only one calf every two years. They have a comparatively short lifespan of approximately 20 years, and have never been held in captivity. Of the less than 100 remaining vaquitas, only 25 are believed to be females of reproductive age.
According to a 2014 report from the Comité Internacional para la Recuperacíon de la Vaquita (CIRVA), a committee that includes government agencies, marine biologists and NGOs, the vaquita population drastically plummets by 18.5 percent every year – and it is estimated that the vaquita could be extinct by 2018 if they continue to fall victim to by-catch in legal and illegal fisheries.
The biggest threat to the vaquita’s survival may now be the gillnets of illegal poaching operations aimed at catching the prized totoaba fish – a critically endangered species itself. The fish are highly sought after for their lucrative swim bladders, exported from Mexico – often sent through the United States – and sold on the black market in China, where they are served in soup. CIRVA reports that fishermen can receive as much as $8,500 USD for just one kilogram of swim bladder. Destructive gillnets are set on the bottom of the sea, leaving a deadly trap not only for the totoaba but for the vaquita as well. The porpoises become trapped in the nets – and unable to reach the surface for air, they drown.
Sea Shepherd commends the Mexican government for the vital actions it is taking to prevent the extinction of the vaquita. Along with a two-year moratorium on gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s habitat, the government provided speedboats to the Navy for patrols of the marine reserve. In addition, Mexico is spending more than $30 million USD on efforts, including a net “buy-out” program to compensate fishermen who agree to stop using gillnets. Mexico will also strongly encourage the use of other, less destructive fishing methods that will not harm the dwindling vaquita population. Sea Shepherd hopes to work with Mexico in the effort to save the world’s last vaquitas and help their endangered species to recover.
“Seeing one of the 97 vaquitas alive in the sea with our own eyes was an incredible experience for all of us onboard the R/V Martin Sheen,” said Captain Oona Layolle. “To see one of the critically endangered marine animals we are here to protect has invigorated and inspired us and reminded us of why this campaign is so important. Sea Shepherd will continue our work for this imperiled species and we hope to assist local and national efforts here to protect it. It is Sea Shepherd’s hope that one day the beautiful sight of a living vaquita in these waters will no longer be a miracle.”
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Source: Sea Shepherd