San Felipe, BCN, Mexico – On the morning of February 21st, Sea Shepherd was alerted to the presence of a whale in life-threatening distress in the Vaquita Refuge, a federally protected zone in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California.
The whale, a humpback, was badly entangled in an illegal totoaba gillnet. The net spanned several hundred meters in length and was tightly wrapped around the animal’s head, body, and tail, impeding its ability to move. Alive but exhausted, the animal had suffered numerous injuries to its pectoral fin and tail and was unable to dive under the strain of the gillnet. It required immediate assistance.
Two of Sea Shepherd’s high speed vessels, the M/V Sharpie and the M/V Farley Mowat, were dispatched to the scene to facilitate rescue efforts coordinated by the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) with support from Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), and the Federal Police. Three navy vessels – a defender, an interceptor, and a warship – were on scene to assist with the rescue.
Sea Shepherd launched its RHIB and working alongside Mexican officials, the crew took action to free the whale, carefully removing the illegal net that restricted the animal’s movement.
The emergency response lasted for several hours, with rescue efforts continuing until sunset. At approximately 06:00 PM, the net had been removed from the animal’s head and body and the whale able to dive deep, disappearing from view. At the time of last sighting, remnants of the gillnet still remained wrapped around the animal’s tail, potentially threatening its long term survival. Mexican authorities alerted scientists and communities in the area to the plight of the whale so that rescue efforts may resume should the whale resurface in distress.
“Today we witnessed firsthand just how cruel gillnets can actually be,” said Jacqueline Le Duc, Captain of Sea Shepherd’s M/V Sharpie. “These gillnets are lethal killers and Sea Shepherd’s presence here in the Upper Gulf of California has never been more important.”
This is not the first time that Sea Shepherd has encountered a whale trapped in a gillnet in the area. In February 2016, Sea Shepherd vessel the R/V Martin Sheen rescued a humpback entangled in a gillnet inside the Vaquita Refuge. In March 2017, the M/V Sam Simon discovered a dead Bryde’s whale trapped in a totoaba gillnet.
The Vaquita Refuge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in which gillnet fishing is banned. This entanglement occurred inside the “critical zone” of the Vaquita Refuge – a high priority area for scientists, conservationists, and Mexican authorities in which several live vaquitas were recently sighted. It is the same area in which poachers opened fire at a Sea Shepherd vessel earlier this month, and where Sea Shepherd discovered a dead vaquita trapped in a gillnet last March.
Gillnets are the primary threat to the vaquita, an endemic species on the brink of extinction. Only 6-19 vaquitas remain alive, and they can only be found in the Upper Gulf of California. Poachers set gillnets in the area in an effort to catch totoaba, a protected species whose swim bladders sell for a high price on the Chinese black market. Vaquitas, whales, and many other species present in these rich waters fall victim to the nets and are caught as bycatch.
“This whale entanglement is another example of why it is so important to continue to protect the Vaquita Refuge against illegal fishing,” said Octavio Carranza, Captain of Sea Shepherd’s M/V Farley Mowat. “It is also a sad reminder of what the vaquita deals with on a daily basis in its quest for survival.”
Sea Shepherd has been working with Mexican authorities for the past six years, removing the illegal gillnets that threaten the survival of the vaquita and all marine life in the area. To date, over 1,000 pieces of illegal fishing gear have been removed from the Vaquita Refuge, directly saving the lives of over 4,000 animals including 137 animals threatened with extinction.