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Meet the crew saving the world's most endangered marine life off the coast of Mexico

Laura Sánchez is a marine biologist onboard the Seahorse in the Gulf of California, Mexico
Laura Sánchez is a marine biologist onboard the Seahorse in the Gulf of California, Mexico Copyright Sea Shepherd/Sea Shepherd
Copyright Sea Shepherd/Sea Shepherd
By Gregory WardSouleyman Messalti
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In the blue waters of Mexico's Gulf of California, dedicated conservationists are battling to safeguard the world's most endangered marine mammal. The vaquita porpoise is a small dolphin-like cetacean endemic to the region.

Paula Olson/AP
Vaquita porpoises are critically endangered and are endemic to the Gulf of California in MexicoPaula Olson/AP

According to the international wildlife organisation, The World Wide Fund for Nature, "as few as ten vaquita are left" in the wild. Their population is rapidly declining, and the species is tethering on the brink of extinction.

Sea Shepherd is a non-profit marine conservation organisation whose sole mission is protecting and preserving the world's oceans and marine wildlife.

Guardians of the Sea

Since 2015, the Sea Shepherd crew has worked hard to safeguard the vaquita through their campaign, 'Operation Milagro'. Their newest ship, The Seahorse, patrols Mexico's waters and works with local authorities to tackle overfishing, poaching, and habitat destruction.

Souleyman Messalti
The Seahorse has directly saved over 4,000 sea creatures in the Gulf of California, MexicoSouleyman Messalti

Mark Gibbs, one of the captains onboard The Seahorse, says: "A lot of Sea Shepherd work has been on the high seas. We've chased trawlers through long distances."

The vaquita live in a pocket of water known as 'The Vaquita Refuge'. UNESCO recognises the area; therefore, the space is protected, and gillnet fishing is banned. Despite its status, the site is home to an active artisanal fishing community.

Captain Mark told SCENES, "The vaquita is sometimes accidentally caught, particularly in poacher's nets. Poachers target fish exactly the same size as a small vaquita."

Poaching endangered species

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, illegal fishing activities are responsible for the loss of as much as 26 million tonnes of marine life each year. They estimate that the trade has an economic value of up to 23 billion US dollars.

The poachers target a fish called the totoaba, which is an endangered species endemic to the Gulf of California. Formerly abundant, its population numbers are now dangerously low.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Poachers are tracked using modern technology, such as drones and satellitesSea Shepherd Conservation Society

"Poachers only target totoaba, but I've seen many other animals entangled in totoaba nets. I've seen tons of rays, sharks, turtles, sea lions, dolphins and whales entangled," says Laura Sánchez, a marine biologist onboard The Seahorse.

The totoaba is targeted for its swim bladders that can be sold in the black market. This illegal trade is very lucrative for poachers, who go to great lengths to secure their catch.

"The Totoaba swim bladder's price per weight is higher than gold," adds Laura.

Safeguarding the vaquita

Operation Milagro focuses on removing illegal fishing gear from their zero-tolerance area. Captain Mark tells SCENES that The Seahorse has retrieved thousands of fishing nets from the water since the campaign has been active.

Javier Rodolfo Sintiolo / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Sea Shepherd has removed thousands of illegal fishing nets in the Gulf of California, MexicoJavier Rodolfo Sintiolo / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

"For poachers, the nets are very expensive. So they didn't like people coming in and pulling up their nets," explains Captain Mark. "So we had a lot of conflicts. We had people throwing petrol bombs at the ships. We had poachers trying to board the ships. There was a lot of gunfire," he adds.

The Seahorse crew removes all fishing nets lost or abandoned at sea. "The problem is they're made of plastic," says Captain Mark. "Then plastic stays forever, and they just keep catching fish forever unless you find them," he explains.

According to Captain Mark, in the first 75 days since The Seahorse began its operation, there was a 90% reduction in illegal fishing activity in the Vaquita Refuge area.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Seahorse scientists meet in the ship's bridge in the Gulf of California, MexicoSea Shepherd Conservation Society

"I'm absolutely convinced if we weren't here, there would be no vaquita left," adds Captain Mark.


Laura Sánchez believes that the campaign has had a tangible impact on the safety of vaquita. "The reason why the vaquita is still alive is because of what we've done here. All the illegal fishing gear that we have retrieved is what has really made the change."

'An important campaign'

"It's such an important campaign. The world is looking at this campaign because the vaquita is the most threatened marine mammal, and the totoaba is the most threatened marine fish," says Captain Mark.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
The Seahorse crew pose for a photo onboard their ship in the Gulf of California, MexicoSea Shepherd Conservation Society

"Unfortunately, many species are on the brink of extinction. This is why I'm fighting. This is work that we have to keep doing. It's what the world needs right now," concludes Laura.

Sea Shepherd will continue to safeguard the vaquitas in the Gulf of California. Their valiant efforts to protect these endangered creatures are helping to secure a future for these majestic animals.

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