More than 35 skiffs attacked a vessel belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the international maritime wildlife conservation organization, in the upper Gulf of California on Wednesday, hurling “lead weights, dead fish, and even Tabasco sauce” at the ship.
According to Sea Shepherd, poachers aboard the skiffs also threatened the organization’s M/V Farley Mowat with Molotov cocktails, sprayed gasoline at the ship and poured it in the water around the vessel.
Earlier that morning, the crew aboard M/V Farley Mowat were conducting maritime patrols inside an area known as the Vaquita Refuge – a protected area created namely to save the world’s smallest dolphin.
At 1:00 p.m., Sea Shepherd explained in a release, the vessel noticed over thirty skiffs operating in the refuge using gillnets – which are strictly prohibited – and poaching totoaba, a critically endangered and protected fish species.
“The Sea Shepherd vessel headed towards the skiffs to observe fishing methods being employed… At this point, one of the skiffs began circling the Sea Shepherd vessel which was soon joined by the remainder of other skiffs,” the release said.
The @MVFarleyMowat IS UNDER ATTACK!
The Sea Shepherd vessel @MVFarleyMowat was prop fouled and boarded by angry poachers!
— Sea Shepherd SSCS (@SeaShepherdSSCS) January 10, 2019
When confronted, the poachers reached for anything they could grab to hurl at the M/V Farley Mowat.
“Poachers then dropped an illegal gillnet in front of the bow of the moving Sea Shepherd vessel in an attempt to foul the ship’s propellers. Five agitated poachers illegally boarded the M/V Farley Mowat and looted multiple objects from the vessel’s deck while it was temporarily immobilized,” the press release said.
A Mexican Naval Helicopter quickly arrived on the scene causing the skiffs to scatter. The captain of the M/V Farley Mowat managed to restart the engines, and the ship headed back to the port of San Felipe.
“Sea Shepherd will not be deterred by violence,” said Sea Shepherd founder and CEO, Paul Watson in a statement. “Our mission is to prevent the extinction of the vaquita porpoise and we will continue to seize the nets of poachers in the Vaquita Refuge. Sea Shepherd salutes the quick responsiveness of the Mexican Navy in defusing a dangerous situation.”
Sea Shepherd’s ships and crew are no strangers to confrontation on the high seas in their effort to end poaching, whaling, and the like worldwide. And in some cases, they’ve taken heat for instigating it.
In 2010, the crew aboard the Steve Irwin lobbed butyric acid, essentially liquified rancid butter, at Japanese whaling ships to disrupt operations. The crew claimed the liquid was “harmless.”
And in 2014, the group claimed a Japanese whaling fleet ambushed two of their vessels and attacked them.
In the Gulf of California, Sea Shepherd has been actively working since 2015 to protect the vaquita porpoise in a campaign called Operation Milagro.
“The main threat to the tiny cetacean is illegal Totoaba gillnet fishing,” Sea Shepherd explained. “The Totoaba fish is another endemic, endangered species to the Gulf of California and it is poached for the trade of its swim bladder in Asian black markets. Totoaba bladders are known as ‘aquatic cocaine’ due to their high value. It is believed that a totoaba bladder can be worth up to $100,000.”
The organization said it has removed 780 pieces of illegal fishing gear in the protected area since 2015.