Operation Milagro - Sea Shepherd RV Martin Sheen

Sea Shepherd’s latest mission, Operation Milagro II, is currently underway in Mexico. Campaign Leader and veteran Sea Shepherd Captain Oona Layolle talks to us in-depth about her operation’s goals and Sea Shepherd’s commitment to saving the endangered vaquita.

Operation Milagro II has just kicked off in Mexico. Can you tell us a bit more about this operation and its objectives?

The objective of this mission is to save the vaquita marina from extinction.

The vaquita marina is a rare species of porpoise that has been on the IUCN red list of endangered species since 1990. The vaquita is endemic to the Sea of Cortez, and can only be found in the extreme northern part of it. Their future on this planet is very sensitive due to the many menaces they face.

Given the few numbers of vaquita left, it is a miracle to see one swimming alive in the sea. Helping the vaquita come back to a healthy population on our planet and ecosystem is a challenge, and without the efforts by the Sea of Cortez fishermen, Mexico, United States, and Chinese governments, it will be hard one to meet.

I’ve named this campaign Operation Milagro (“miracle” in English) because despite these challenges, we believe in the miracle that one day we will be able to see the vaquita swim in healthy numbers once again.

Why is the vaquita in danger of extinction?

The vaquita must come to the surface of the sea to breathe. However, there are gill nets that are set on the bottom of the sea by fishermen which are a deadly trap to the vaquita. The vaquita can’t see or locate the nets and get caught in them – they then face death by asphyxiation, unable to reach the surface to breathe. Scientist have concluded that incidental mortality in gill nets represent the greatest immediate threat to the survival of the species.

Vaquita Marina

Another problem that has added to the threat of the vaquita is the illegal fishing of the Totoaba.  The Totoaba is a giant fish that can reach 2 m in length and 100 kg in weight. It is another endangered animal endemic of the sea of Cortez, and has been listed on the IUCN red list of endangered species since 1986. An illegal black market exists in China to sell only its swim bladder, leaving the rest of this majestic fish to rot in the sea and on the beaches of Mexico. The swim bladder is exported to China where it is used as an ingredient in soup and believed to have medicinal value. Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico, often through the United States. Fishermen receive up to $8,500 for each kilogram of totoaba swim bladder, equivalent to half a year’s income from legal fishing activities.

Many vaquitas find their death in nets set for the Totoaba. It is also the responsibility of the US and Chinese government to take the necessary measures to stop the illegal market for the Totoaba bladder.

In 2008, the vaquita was already in danger of extinction with an estimated population of fewer than 200 individuals.  The most recent survey, completed this month, estimates that since then, 7 out of every 10 vaquitas have been killed. That means that rebuilding the population to 2008 levels would require 40 years at the vaquitas maximum population growth rate. If nothing is done, scientists have evaluated the vaquita to be genetically extinct by 2018.

To prevent this, the Mexican government made a great move in April 2015 by announcing a two-year moratorium on fishing activities inside a new extended protected area covering 13,000 square kilometers. The president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, came to the region personally to announce the event, and gave three drones and speedboats to the army to help patrol the refuge area.

Still, if there is no reinforcement to government action and if no daily surveillance is applied on site, the vaquita will continue to fall into extinction.

For this reason Sea Shepherd is now acting as the guardian of the Vaquita refuge and we are here in the Sea of Cortez to fight against extinction. Operation Milagro II started on November 27th. This is a very important project because if we let the vaquita go extinct it is one more step towards the extinction of life on our planet. We can’t leave the door open to extinction because there is no way back.

So far six illegal trawlers have trespassed inside the vaquita refuge and were reported to the navy during our watch. We will keep patrolling the area day and night to stop any illegal fishing from threatening the vaquita, and report illegal activities to the Mexican navy.

Our efforts to preserve the vaquita have to be constant and we will remain here as her protectors for as long as it takes to bring her back to healthy numbers.

What does your work day look like on Operation Milagro?

My work as Captain and Campaign leader for Op Milagro starts with a morning meeting where I announce to the crew of the Martin Sheen the plans for the day, where we will patrol, what are the objectives, and I let them now what news we have concerning campaign.

Oona Layolle

I’ll then be on the bridge most of the time leading the patrol operation against poaching and deciding on the sailing maneuvers. If we spot any illegal fishing activity I will call the navy and tell them the position and information about the poaching boat so they can stop them.

During nighttime the crew will be doing watches to keep the ship running 24/7. If any major sailing maneuvers need to be done, illegal activity happening, weather changes are happening, any incident on the electronics and engines, or if any questions, they will wake me up to assess the situation and decide on what we will need to do.

As campaign leader I sometimes need to go on land to have meetings with the different government entities, and because I am also the Director of ship operations I need time on land to be able to work on my ship management, and other campaign duties. In that case my first officer Bastien Bouidoire will take over as captain on board the ship and I will be communicating with him from land.

Who makes up the crew of your ship?

The crew of the Martin Sheen is extremely diverse – We are nine crew on board from all different backgrounds and from all over the world.

Operation Milagro Crew

I am the captain, originally from France, and grew up sailing all over the world.

The first officer, Bastien Boudoire, is also from France, and is a licensed captain with many years experience sailing tall ships, including with Sea Shepherd on several campaigns.

Our second officer, Mike Rigney, is a mechanical engineer from the United States; he is our second officer on board.

Our engineer, Willie Hatfield, is a former naval architect and bicycle engineer from the United States. He also has experience in several previous Sea Shepherd campaigns on other ships.

Nicole d’Entremont is our cook, which is one of the most challenging positions on any ship. She is a marine scientist from the United States, and is tasked with feeding nine crewmembers two meals a day – and she pulls it off beautifully.

Carolina Castro is from Brazil, and is in charge of all media on the ship – she produces our weekly video log, manages social media, and any other video and photography aboard the ship. She is also a veteran Sea Shepherd crewmember.

Jean Paul Geoffroy is a computer engineer from Chile, and is our ship’s dive officer and drone pilot.

Mar is a lawyer and sailing instructor from Spain and serves as a deckhand.

Elena is a wildlife management student who has studied the acoustic behavior of the vaquita extensively, and is also a deckhand aboard the Martin Sheen.

To learn more about Operation Milagro you can follow along at:

Facebook: – The RV Martin Sheen
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Twitter: RVMartinSheen