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Researchers Trying To Save Endangered Marine Mammal Stop In San Diego

Photo credit: NOAA

Vaquita porpoises swim in the Gulf of California.

Researchers estimate there are fewer than 60 vaquita porpoises remaining along the Baja Peninsula. The destruction of the marine mammal is blamed on gill nets that entangle and drown the porpoises.

Two research ships with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will stop in the San Diego harbor on Saturday after wrapping up a three-month operation in the Gulf of California. The group has been on a mission to try to save the vaquita porpoise — one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the Pacific Ocean.

“The vaquitas are definitely on the brink of extinction,” said David Hance, CEO of the conservation group, based in Burbank.

Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

This map of the Gulf of California shows where the endangered vaquita porpoise lives, and where the marine mammal is being killed in illegal gillnets.

Researchers estimate fewer than 60 vaquitas remain along the Baja Peninsula. The destruction of the small porpoise is blamed on gill nets that entangle and drown the species. Fishermen use the illegal nets to catch totoaba, a critically endangered fish targeted by poachers who sell their swim bladders on the black markets in China.

In September, the Sea Shepherd’s 17 crew members began patrolling 24 hours a day Mexico's Sea of Cortez and used drones to help them monitor the illegal fishing activity. The group worked closely with Mexico's government and navy to intercept poachers.

“We also incorporate an education aspect into it where we try to educate all of the local fisherman,” Hance said. “And even the ones doing the illegal gill nets to try to make them understand how urgent of a situation this is.”

During the mission, crew members spotted three live vaquitas, bringing a renewed hope, Hance said.

“We think with both the enforcements that we are doing — the patrols and the education — we are hoping to save this species from extinction,” Hance said.

Since February, the crew removed 42 gill nets that killed three vaquitas and dozens of sharks and other marine animals. The crew was able to save a humpback whale and a juvenile great white shark.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will offer free public tours this weekend of the Martin Sheen and Farley Mowat ships after they dock in San Diego, north of the Maritime Museum.

The tours will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m on Saturday and Sunday. Crew members will share information about the organization’s work to defend ocean wildlife and habitats worldwide.

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