MEXICO CITY (AP) — Conservationists on a Sea Shepherd vessel out to protect the endangered vaquita porpoise came under gun fire in the upper Gulf of California over the weekend by men in small boats.
The confrontation took place Saturday in what is known as the “critical zone” of an area designated as a refuge for the vaquita because several of the porpoises have been sighted there.
Officials from the Mexican navy, federal police and Mexican environmental protection agency were also onboard the M/V Sharpie.
According to Sea Shepherd, four skiffs known locally as pangas approached the Sharpie and began to chase the vessel at full speed, swerving in front and around the ship.
The captain carried out anti-piracy procedures, including the use of water cannons and other anti-boarding techniques. At least two shots fired from the skiffs landed in the water near the Sea Shepherd vessel, which was not hit during the incident.
Sea Shepherd said no injuries occurred.
“This just shows how aggressive the poachers are here. It proves to us that they are armed and that we need to take every panga that we come across seriously, because we have no idea what they are capable of,” said Jacqueline Le Duc, Captain of the M/V Sharpie.
Sea Shepherd shared photos and videos of the pursuit online. Mexico’s environmental protection agency also acknowledged the incident, while saying it would continue to collaborate with Sea Shepherd in an effort to protect the environment.
The vaquita population has been dramatically reduced by illegal net fishing for the totoaba, whose swim bladders can sell for thousands of dollars in China. Only about a dozen or so of the reclusive porpoises are believed to remain in the gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
The aggressions on Saturday were in the same area in which Sea Shepherd discovered a dead vaquita trapped in a gillnet last March.
Mexico’s environmental protection agency said that porpoise was in an advanced state of decay but had deep stabbing wounds as well as slashes consistent with the cutting of nets around the animal.
Sea Shepherd has been working with Mexican authorities in the area for six years, removing the illegal gillnets that threaten the species.
Poachers have resorted to violence in the area before. In January 2019, Sea Shepherd vessel the M/V Farley Mowat was attacked by a mob of over 50 skiffs, who hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at the ship, breaking its windows and setting its hull on fire.
Earlier that same month, Sea Shepherd said poachers ambushed and illegally boarded the Farley Mowat.