Alleged poacher tried to recover net confiscated by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
SAN FELIPE, Baja California, Mexico––An alleged poacher and two apparently uninvolved passers-by were reportedly hit by gunfire in a March 28, 2019 confrontation with Mexican marines in San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico.
The shooting incident was among the most violent yet in the long-running fight against gill netting for endangered totoaba fish, which has also pushed the tiny vaquita porpoise to the verge of extinction, as an unwanted bycatch.
Suspect tried to recover gill nets
Recounted Mexico News Daily, “The Secretariat of the Navy said in a statement that a man was accidentally shot as he tried to escape in a pickup truck that was towing a boat.”
The boat had just been used by alleged poachers to recover illegally deployed gill nets that had been impounded by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crew members from the Sea of Cortez vaquita porpoise reserve in the upper Gulf of California.
Operating under the campaign names Operation Milagro and Operation Ghost Net, the Sea Shepherds have been patrolling the Sea of Cortez since 2014 to protect both vaquita and totoaba.
Shot three times
The Sea Shepherds apparently brought the confiscated nets to shore at San Felipe. The alleged poachers then seized the nets and tried to abscond the scene, but collided with a Mexican Navy vehicle, triggering the shooting.
“According to local media,” Mexico News Daily said, “the wounded man was 37-year-old Enrique García Sandez. He was taken to a local clinic, but later transferred to a hospital in Mexicali with serious injuries.”
The San Felipe news web site La Voz de la Frontera reported that Garcia Sandez was hit in the left arm, the right leg, and the scalp.
Added Mexico News Daily, “The news website El Imparcial reported that a 65-year-old woman and a 17-year-old were also injured in the confrontation. The l7-year-old, Ricardo Zúñiga, was treated at a Mexicali hospital. Rosa María Zaragoza González, 65, was in the street during the clash and was grazed by a stray bullet . She was treated for the injury at a San Felipe clinic.”
The shooting incited a violent protest in front of the Mexican Navy base at San Felipe. The Secretariat of the Navy told media that a vehicle and two small boats were set on fire by Molotov cocktails. La Voz de la Frontera broadcast footage of demonstrators standing about a block away from a column of black smoke.
The protesters argued that they and the injured suspects are not poachers.
“Legal fishermen have nothing to do with the disorder that’s going on in the Port of San Felipe right now,” spokesperson for the protesters Ramón Franco Díaz told La Voz de la Frontera.
Diaz “said that these legal fishermen, who are simply trying to catch ‘chano’ [a smaller croaker species] to feed their families, should not be conflated with totoaba poachers,” translated Mike Gaworecki for Mongabay.
Dead vaquita was first seen in 2019
The latest confrontation came “a week after the federal government announced that it will strengthen the fight against illegal fishing and use buoys to mark the reserve of the vaquita porpoise as part of a new strategy to protect the highly-endangered mammal from extinction,” recalled Mexico News Daily.
The crackdown followed the March 12, 2019 Sea Shepherd discovery of a dead vaquita, reported Kendal Blust of La Voz de la Frontera––the first vaquita seen in 2019, dead or alive. As few as half a dozen are believed to remain, after the confirmed death of a female and suspected death of a baby during attempted captures for breeding undertaken in October and November of 2017.
Totoaba, the fish species targeted by the alleged poachers, known in the U.S. as “bigeye croaker,” have swim bladders much coveted by commodity speculators in China as a substitute for a fished-out Chinese coastal species, the bahaba, University of Hong Kong biology professor Yvonne Sadovy told Guinn Guilford of Quartz in 2015.
Responding to runaway inflation in 2009-2010, Sadovy explained, Chinese investors sought to stash cash in commodity investments. Historically valued body parts of rare animals looked like a good investment to the unscrupulous, who bet that the increasing scarcity of endangered species would keep prices high, even though possession and import of body parts of internationally protected species is as illegal in China as almost anywhere else.
“The illegal totoaba trade is similar to other wildlife trafficking,” explained MAREX, an online periodical whose name is abbreviated from The Marine Executive, “and it is believed to involve organized crime. Earlier this month, customs officials in Shanghai caught a pregnant woman who was attempting to smuggle 122 totoaba swim bladders through Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The 20-year-old suspect had arrived on a flight from Mexico and was waiting for a connecting flight” to Jiangmen, in Guangdong province, the primary market for the contraband.
Altogether, Chinese authorities reportedly arrested 11 people for smuggling nearly 20,000 totoaba swim bladders over three years, worth an estimated $119 million.
An individual named Liang Weihua was said to have routed the swim bladders through Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, it said, adding that the case is currently under further investigation.
Two years of violence
The shooting at San Felipe came just over two years after fishers from Golfo de Santa Clara on the night of March 8, 2017 “burned 15 official vehicles, damaged federal offices, set fire to the Federal Office of Environmental Protection’s boats, stole a vessel that had been impounded by authorities of the Navy Secretariat, and injured inspectors in the sector,” reported Amalia Escobar, Hermosillo correspondent for El Universal.
“The Federal Office of Environmental Protection (Profepa) filed a criminal complaint against those responsible,” Escobar continued. “The complaint details that 10 employees of Profepa and the National Commission of Protected Areas (Conanp), as well as 18 officers of the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commission (Conapesca) were assaulted. Three Profepa inspectors who were beaten managed to leave the village together,” Escobar added, “with two other companions, and managed to find shelter in nearby San Luis Rio Colorado.”
Watson blames boycott
The destruction of equipment crippled marine conservation efforts for months throughout the Colorado River delta area of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson in December 2017 blamed that incident and much ensuing violence on what he termed a misdirected international boycott of Mexican shrimp, called on behalf of the endangered vaquita porpoise by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Since then,” Watson elaborated in July 2018, “Sea Shepherd has had drones shot down and Molotov cocktails thrown at the organization’s vessels. Poachers have also shot directly at a Sea Shepherd ship, the Sharpie, forcing Mexican federal law enforcement agents embedded on board to return fire, fortunately with no injuries on either side.”
The Sharpie, formerly the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bainbridge Island, joined two other former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, the Farley Mowat and the John Paul DeJoria, in the Sea of Cortez in December 2017.