Sea Shepherd Carries Out Critical Operation Retrieving Ghost Nets To Save Less Than 15 Vaquita Remaining In The Wild; The World’s Most Endangered Marine Mammal

Last week marked the completion of a collaborative effort aimed at removing abandoned fishing gear from the habitat of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

The program, which is funded by the Government of Mexico, has been operating since 2016. Every year, a group of small-scale fishers from the community of San Felipe in the Upper Gulf of California undertakes seasonal ghost net removal operations in the Vaquita Refuge. Sea Shepherd provides support by recovering the nets located by the fishers, ensuring that they never find their way back into the marine ecosystem.

“Ghost nets” are abandoned fishing nets that have been discarded or lost at sea. These inactive nets pose a deadly threat by continuing to kill marine wildlife for as long as the nets remain in the ocean. Whales, turtles, dolphins, and vaquitas are all vulnerable to entanglement in these ​deserted nets.

A group of 35 local fishers, working from 17 small boats, systematically search the Vaquita Refuge in a grid pattern to locate discarded fishing gear. Following GPS coordinates, the boats drag modified hooks under the water to detect submerged nets. As the vessels move over the nets, the hooks become entangled in the fishing gear. Once a net is detected, the fishermen mark the area, and Sea Shepherd’s Sharpie moves in to retrieve the gear.

This season, the operation successfully retrieved 20 nets from the Vaquita Refuge between September 12th and October 31st, 2020.

“There are many more nets in the water than vaquitas,” said Andrea Bonilla, Sea Shepherd’s Ghost Net Project Coordinator in a statement.

Scientists estimate that less than 15 vaquita remain in the wild, and the primary threat to the survival of the critically endangered species is entanglement in fishing gear. The rare species of porpoise is endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, an area rife with poaching due to the illegal totoaba trade.

The Vaquita Refuge is a UNESCO-recognized and federally-protected area in which gillnet fishing is banned.

Sea Shepherd’s Sharpie remains in the Vaquita Refuge upon completion of this operation and is working with Mexican authorities to monitor the area, prevent poaching, and remove both active gillnets and ghost nets from the region.

“The last days of the Ghost Net Project turned up no nets, which means that the area has been effectively cleared of these abandoned, invisible curtains of death,” said Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd’s Director of Campaigns. “Thanks to the work of local fishermen, the Museo de la Ballena and Sharpie crew, we are starting Operation Milagro VII with a blank slate, ready to confiscate any new illegal fishing gear set to target the totoaba – and indirectly, the vaquita.”

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