On the San Diego Embarcadero, we had the opportunity to tour the Sea Shepherd vessel M/V Farley Mowat while it was in transit to the northern Sea of Cortez to participate in Operation Milagro 4, a campaign to protect the endemic vaquita from poaching operations.
Vaquita are a species of porpoise that as of 2018 only numbered 12 individuals, making it the most critically endangered cetacean in the world. In the Sea of Cortez, they are accidentally killed as by-catch in gillnets laid for the totoaba bass, also critically endanged; which are poached for their swim bladders. These organs, the only part of the fish that is used, are dried and then sold for tens of thousands of dollars per kilo in China, where they are used for unsubstantiated medical purposes. Efforts to discourage the use of gillnets in the northern Sea of Cortez, such as fishermen reimbursement programs offered by the Mexican government, and the banning of sales of totoaba swim bladders in China has done little to stem the flow of poaching, as black market sales of this ‘aquatic cocaine’ make such activities extremely lucrative to communities that depend on fishing for their livelihoods. A plan to breed vaquita in captivity is not considered viable due to the susceptibility of the porpoises to stress.
“There is no secret to our effectiveness; our success lies in our sheer persistence.”
On deck on a sunny summer afternoon, volunteer crew members introduce us to their organization. “We have 10 ships in our fleet, that operate around the world protecting the oceans by conducting scientific studies and disrupting sea life poaching operations. Impressed by our track record of running successful campaigns, we have been approached by the governments of several countries for advice in curbing poaching activities in their nations, and have partnered with the Mexican Navy, Italian Coast Guard and the Coast Guards of Gabon and Sao Tome and Principe. There is no secret to our effectiveness; our success lies in our sheer persistence.” The aggressiveness of Sea Shepherds’ programs however, have rubbed some hairs the wrong way, our guide says. “Japan in particular, angered by our interference with their whale hunting operations, has made it so that the US Court disallows our organization from interfering with Japanese whalers, even if the whalers’ activities are illegal by international laws. We have had ships targeting whalers impounded, and the Japanese Government has tried to defund us by appealing to the US Government to remove our charity organization tax exemption status.”
On our tour aboard the Farley Mowat, we got a glimpse into the life of a crew member working on their ships. “At the moment, we have 18 people working on board, of which only the captain and chief engineer are paid staff. All our other staff are volunteers, coming from diverse countries. We offer basic safety training to our ocean bound volunteers, such as man overboard drills and first aid, but when it comes to being shot at by hostile ships, all we can say is ‘duck’! On certain operations, such as our upcoming one in Mexico, we have armed navy personnel on board to guard us, but otherwise we do not use firearms, as we believe that violent combat will tarnish our reputation in the public’s eye, and we do not want to encourage an arms race with poaching operations.”
In the ship’s cockpit, we were shown some hardware used in their operations. “Onboard, we use radar and sonar to detect the location of poaching vessels. From our experience, it is best to approach them once they have already laid their nets, and then we start cutting up those nets and freeing any wildlife that has been caught. Fishing nets are indiscriminate; in gillnets laid for totoaba, we have found, in addition to vaquita, sharks, turtles and dolphins. We have to work as fast as possible, since these animals start dying as soon as they are hauled out of the water. Once the net is cut up, we collect them to be recycled. Besides intervening directly with poaching vessels, we also work on collecting evidence of wrongdoings. In our media room, we have drones and cameras that we use to document poaching activities, to be sent to law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, we have had drones shot at to deter us from our surveillance work, but we will not give up.”
Convening in the ship’s mess hall, the volunteers tell us about the day-to-day life of crewmembers. “As you can see, our living quarters are very modest; if we had everyone eating here at the same time, we would have to interlock our arms to be able to use our spoons”, jokes our guide. “We only serve vegan food to our crew. 45% of all fish that is caught in the ocean is ground up and processed into feed for farm animals, so we believe that consuming animal products contributes to the overfishing of our waters; an issue that we are trying to combat.”
With Sea World San Diego within a few miles of where we were currently docked, it seemed pertinent to ask the question; can, or what is Sea Shepherd doing about opposing the capture and display of animals in dolphinariums? “Other organizations such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States are involved in protesting outlets such as these. Sea Shepherd is more concerned with direct intervention in saving the ocean, and so Sea World is not within our area of focus”, explains our guide.
As cruisers, we were eager to help out in Sea Shepherds’ cause, but as parents, we did not know if confrontational tactics were best suited for us. “As a boater, you can help report poaching operations by looking out for gillnets, whose use has been permanently banned in Mexico. Taking pictures or video of their activity is helpful so that it can be used as evidence of any wrongdoings. Then, this information can be reported to PROFEPA (the Environmental Protection Agency of Mexico).”
If you would like to help Sea Shepherd out in their cause, you can visit their website and apply to be a land based or ocean going volunteer. On a ship, it is a plus if you have applicable expertise, such as electrical work, diesel engine maintenance, or vegan cooking. Another way to help out is to spread the word about their campaigns, which currently include preventing turtle poaching, exposing the biological dangers of fish farming, and advocating for clean ocean waters. Government agencies that they work with do not compensate Sea Shepherd; they are fully funded by donations and sale of merchandise.
Sea Shepherd website: https://seashepherd.org/
Facts about vaquita: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/vaquita
The ugly side of family friendly dolphinariums: https://www.outsideonline.com/1924946/killer-pool?page=all