Sea Shepherd Drone Shot Down

Published Dec 26, 2017 4:57 PM by The Maritime Executive

A drone operated by ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd was shot down in the Gulf of California, Mexico, on Christmas Eve. The vessel is currently in the Upper Gulf to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and totoaba bass.

The organization reports that its vessel M/V John Paul DeJoria was on patrol looking for illegal fishing operations when its crew observed suspicious activity on the radar at 9:30 pm on December 24. Captain Benoit Sandjian directed the Sea Shepherd crew to fly the night vision drone to investigate and found three skiffs 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 Sandjian.

The drone had traveled approximately 2.8 nautical miles from the vessel and was hovering when it first fired upon. The crew replaced the drone’s batteries and directed it over another skiff 1.4 nautical miles away. The drone was approximately 100 feet above the vessel when it was then shot down.

In the past, fishermen 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.

The fishermen are believed to be 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 other animals including the most endangered marine mammal in the world - the vaquita porpoise. Scientists estimate that there are less than 30 vaquitas in existence.

Tension has been increasing in the fight to save the vaquita, which is endemic to the Gulf of California.  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 fourth season of what it calls Operation Milagro. 

“We are not going anywhere,” said 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.”