Would have passed safely if he had not cut to the right
SAN FELIPE, Baja California, Mexico––What fisher Mario García Toledo, 56, had in mind when he swerved his small but speedy panga across the bow of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessel Farley Mowat on the morning of December 31, 2020 in the northern Sea of Cortez may never be known.
Rescued from the water by Sea Shepherd crew and Mexican Navy personnel aboard a second Sea Shepherd vessel, the Sharpie, Mario García Toledo was pronounced dead soon afterward in a Mexicali hospital.
The cause of death was trauma caused by multiple injuries to his abdomen and pelvis, family member Agustín Toledo told media on January 2, 2020, confirming earlier Sea Shepherd and Mexican Navy accounts.
Accelerated into collision path
Agustín Toledo blamed “violence by foreign environmentalists” and called for “strong justice on the part of federal authorities in Baja California.”
Video posted by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society soon after the collision, however, clearly showed Mario García Toledo accelerating his panga on a course that would have passed harmlessly, if noisily, to the starboard of the Farley Mowat.
Instead, Mario García Toledo made an abrupt starboard turn, as if playing “chicken” with the much larger Farley Mowat.
Moving at speed, the Farley Mowat had no chance to stop or even for the helmsman, believed to have been Farley Mowat captain Alex Cornelissen, to react.
Video clearly shows turn & impact
Mario García Toledo’s panga bounced sideways over the Farley Mowat’s bow wave. The panga was apparently still partially out of the water at the moment of impact. The panga hull shattered, spilling Mario García Toledo and an unidentified fellow fisher into the sea.
The Sea Shepherd video may be viewed at https://seashepherd.org/2021/01/01/collision-at-sea-as-sea-shepherd-vessels-attacked-in-mexicos-vaquita-refuge/.
The unidentified surviving fisher remained hospitalized, as of January 5, 2021, “with fractures to the cranium and collarbone and other injuries,” reported Wendy Fry of the San Diego Union Tribune.
A former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Farley Mowat was acquired by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 2015 to replace the original Farley Mowat, in service with the Sea Shepherds from 1997 to 2008.
Mexican Navy statement
According to a translated official statement from the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy, “Poachers deliberately attacked Sea Shepherd vessels, damaging two of them, and injuring a sailor.”
The Farley Mowat and the Sharpie, also a former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, working with the Mexican Navy to protect highly endangered vaquita porpoises and totoaba fish from illegal gill netting, were removing gill nets from the designated vaquita protection area, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy statement explained.
Fishers aboard pangas, trying to protect their nets from confiscation, responded by throwing objects including lead fishing weights and homemade explosive devices, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy recounted.
The Sharpie and Farley Mowat were preparing to leave the area, according to the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy, when the fatal collision occurred.
Mob drove rescue vessel away from dock
“The crew of the Sharpie immediately carried out rescue work,” the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy said, “requesting support from the Naval Sector of San Felipe to disembark the injured, and to provide security for both Sea Shepherd vessels, since they had information that more fishers were gathering with an aggressive attitude in the area of the incident.”
“The Naval Command sent a boat, Defender BR-40, which intercepted the Sharpie to carry out the medical evacuation and transfer of the two injured to the dock,” the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy statement continued. “However, it was only possible to transfer one of them, since the arrival of fishers prevented the second injured man from being disembarked.
“Upon arriving at the safe port, the injured fisher who could be evacuated was quickly taken to the San Felipe Naval Clinic,” the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy added, “where he received medical attention.”
200 people stoned Mexican Navy search & rescue base
Once stabilized, that fisher “was transferred in a Red Cross ambulance to the San Felipe Health Center to receive specialized medical attention,” the Mexican Navy explained.
The Defender BR-40 then returned to the Sharpie and relayed Mario García Toledo to the San Felipe Naval Clinic. Toledo, given the extent of his injuries, was probably already dead.
The Mexican Secretariat of the Navy statement said another Navy vessel, the Mintaka Interceptor Patrol, “began to provide security for the Sea Shepherd vessels, which continued to be attacked by fishers.”
About three hours after the collision, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy added, “some 200 people approached the facilities of the San Felipe Naval Sector and began to stone the Naval Station for Search, Rescue and Maritime Surveillance.”
Both local police and a National Defense infantry company were asked for help.
Navy boat set ablaze
Fifty minutes later, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy statement related, “the Naval Command was informed that the interceptor patrol vessel Albireo, which was docked at the Fonatur dock, was set on fire.” A crew member was injured “when he was hit by an object on the head.”
Little information was forthcoming from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society until almost a day later.
“For legal reasons until further notice,” Sea Shepherd founder and captain Paul Watson posted at 10:42 a.m. on January 1, 2021, “all comments will be deleted. This is a sensitive situation limited to our official release.”
Watson, who was not at the scene, apparently posted from his home in France.
Assailants in 5-7 pangas
According to the official Sea Shepherd Conservation Society statement, released on January 2, 2021, “At approximately 7:00 in the morning of December 31, a group of assailants in 5-7 fishing boats (known locally as pangas) launched a violent attack on Sea Shepherd vessels Farley Mowat and Sharpie inside the Zero Tolerance Area of Mexico’s federally-protected Vaquita Refuge.
“Sea Shepherd is working with Mexican authorities to deter poaching and remove illegal fishing gear from the area,” the Sea Shepherd statement affirmed. “As the conservation vessel [Farley Mowat] attempted to remove the net from the refuge, several pangas aggressively approached the ship, launching lead weights and Molotov cocktails at the crew and military officials on board.
“As the vessel attempted to leave the scene, one of the pangas swerved in front of the Farley Mowat,” the Sea Shepherds said. “Closed circuit footage recorded on the bridge of the Farley Mowat captured images of the incident.”
“Not breathing when brought aboard”
After the Sharpie picked Toledo and the other injured fisher out of the water, “Sea Shepherd medical officer Corrine Perron provided emergency first aid.”
Unclear is what medical training Perron had.
“One assailant was not breathing when brought on board,” the Sea Shepherd statement said. Perron “administered immediate CPR and emergency oxygen. The second assailant had suspected broken ribs. Two medics from the Mexican Navy arrived at the scene and provided additional emergency care to the men. As the medics continued to tend to the injured parties, two assailants illegally boarded the Sharpie, threatened its crew and the Mexican officials on board, and smashed the camera being used to document the emergency first response. Assailants in nearby pangas threw projectiles and fuel at Sharpie, catching its bow on fire. Sharpie crew and military officials successfully put out the fire and removed the two men who had illegally boarded the ship.”
Added the Sea Shepherd statement, “As Sharpie departed from the scene, the pangas continued to attack, launching additional Molotov cocktails at the vessel, setting the recovered fishing gear collected on the vessel’s aft-deck on fire. The crew and military personnel on board were able to extinguish the fire. On shore, assailants set fire to Sea Shepherd’s truck.”
Patrolling to protect vaquita & totoaba since 2014
Operating under the campaign names Operation Milagro and Operation Ghost Net, the Sea Shepherds have been patrolling the Sea of Cortez since 2014, in partnership with Mexican authorities, to protect both vaquita and totoaba.
Only from a dozen to perhaps 20 vaquita remain, jeopardized by fishers targeting totoaba, the largest variety of the fish usually known in the U.S. as croakers.
Totoaba, also called “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.
Most of the totoaba, like many bahaba, are not eaten, but rather are frozen and stored as an investment, in the belief that the body parts of rare animals will gain value when the species are extinct.
Asterisk on “never caused injury” claim
The death of Mario García Toledo puts an asterisk on Paul Watson’s frequent claim that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has “never caused a single injury to a single person in 42 years of operation,” because even though the immediate cause was Toledo’s own action, the Farley Mowat was the instrument of his demise.
There have been many other violent encounters during the nearly seven years that the Sea Shepherds have worked in the Sea of Cortez.
Notably, a 37-year-old alleged poacher and two apparently uninvolved passers-by, a 65-year-old woman and a 17-year-old man, were reportedly hit by gunfire in a March 28, 2019 confrontation with Mexican marines in San Felipe.
Collision during getaway led to shooting
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 Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crew members had just brought to shore at San Felipe.
The alleged poachers seized the nets and tried to leave, but collided with a Mexican Navy vehicle, triggering the shooting.
A mob then converged on the Mexican Navy base at San Felipe, setting one vehicle and two small boats on fire with Molotov cocktails.
Boarded in 2019
The shootings came just under two months after the Farley Mowat reported on January 2, 2019 that it had been “boarded by angry poachers,” said to have hurled lead weights at the wheelhouse windows, menacing crew members with Molotov cocktails.
The Farley Mowat eventually “sped away from about 35 hostile pangas,” with “five angry poachers on deck,” a Sea Shepherd statement said.
Nearly two years before that, 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.
Twenty-eight employees of the Federal Agency for Environmental Protection, National Commission of Protected Areas, and National Aquaculture & Fisheries Commission were assaulted.
Drone shot down
That incident followed the December 24, 2017 shoot-down or a Sea Shepherd drone launched from the Sea Shepherd vessel John Paul DeJoria, another former U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
The drone was shot down over the Gulf of California after observing three skiffs moving at night through the gill net exclusion zone.
Watson blames boycott
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson in December 2017 blamed the shoot-down 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.
“Although we are not a part of the boycott,” Watson said, “our ships and crew are the only highly visible conservationists operating in the vaquita refuge and the Sea of Cortez. That makes Sea Shepherd a magnet for anger and outrage––not from the poachers, but from fishermen who prior to the boycott were not a threat to us.
“In fact many of them were sympathetic to our efforts,” Watson added.