Ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd was surprised by gunfire on Christmas Eve resulting in a drone being shot down by poachers in the Gulf of California, Mexico.
The Sea Shepherd vessel M/V John Paul DeJoria was on patrol looking for poachers when its crew observed suspicious activity on the radar at 9:30 pm on December 24th. The vessel is currently in the Upper Gulf for Operation Milagro IV, to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and totoaba bass.
Captain Benoit Sandjian directed the Sea Shepherd crew to fly the night vision drone to investigate the targets. Three skiffs were moving through the gill net exclusion zone.
“Poachers often conceal themselves in the cover of night, which is what we suspected to be the case here,” said the captain of the M/V John Paul DeJoria.
The poachers are targeting the critically endangered totoaba fish, in order to harvest their swim bladder. Much like shark fins, these bladders are sought for their alleged medicinal powers and sold on black markets in China and Hong Kong for tens of thousands of dollars. Poachers set gillnets to catch totoaba, but the nets catch everything in their path, including the most endangered marine mammal in the world - the elusive vaquita porpoise.
The conservationists’ drone had traveled approximately 2.8 nautical miles from the vessel and was hovering above a suspicious skiff, when five gunshots rang across the sea. Upon reviewing the footage from this incident, the crew confirmed that one of the individuals in the skiff was in possession of a firearm.
The crew replaced the drone’s batteries and immediately took to the sky once more to inspect another skiff 1.4 nautical miles away. At this point, they lowered the Matrice drone to 100 feet in order to get a better look at the suspect vessel.
Thirteen gunshots were fired and instantly the drone’s monitor went dark, reading ‘disconnected’. “Our drone was shot down,” said drone operator Jack Hutton. “The poachers don't want us looking at them, even if it means making use of automatic weapons, reaching a new level of violence.”
In the past, poachers have attempted to strike Sea Shepherd’s drone with rocks, bricks, and even fish, however this incident is the first time that the drones have been shot at.
Sea Shepherd president and founder Captain Paul Watson has always maintained that the camera is the organization’s greatest weapon. It is no secret to poachers that the video drone is critical to Sea Shepherd in saving the vaquita porpoise from extinction by finding the location of illegal nets and recovering them.
The tension has been increasing in the fight to save the vaquita, which is endemic to the Gulf of California. Scientists estimate that there are less than 30 vaquitas in existence. Earlier this year, at a demonstration, a group of fishermen took a small skiff, painted the words “Sea Shepherd” on it, and then burned it in the streets of San Felipe’s fishing village.
Sea Shepherd is working with Mexican authorities and the Mexican Navy to patrol the area and recover illegal gillnets on its 4th season of Operation Milagro. “We are not going anywhere,” said Captain Sandjian. “We will not be intimidated by these threats. The vaquita needs us, and so does the long list of species impacted by poachers in the Sea of Cortez. For as long as there are illegal nets in these waters, Sea Shepherd will be here to pull them out.”
Video of incident here: