Tensions between poachers and conservationists in the Gulf of California escalated over the weekend after a fisherman shot down a drone being used to monitor illegal activities.
The drone belonged to the U.S. conservation group Sea Shepherd, which has two ships in the northern part of the Sea of Cortez as part of an effort to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
The vaquita have been inadvertently caught in nets that poachers use to catch the endangered totoaba fish. Fishermen can make huge sums on the black market for dried totoaba swim bladders, which are sold in China for their supposed medicinal properties.
The environmental group has been searching for nets and pulling them from the water.
"[The poachers] don't like us, they've made that very clear. We've received a lot of threats," said Paul Watson, the founder of Sea Shepherd, which has a total of 12 ships working to protect marine life around the globe. "We are hoping the Mexican government will take this incident seriously."
The drone evaded initial bullets but was shot down around 10:30 p.m. Sunday as crew members on the John Paul DeJoria watched the footage in real time. The drone camera captured a fisherman firing repeatedly from the stern of a small speedboat before the video feed cut out.
Watson said drones have become a key tool in Sea Shepherd's work, allowing the group to collect evidence of poaching and locations where fishermen drop their nets under the cover of night. In the morning, the crew members of Sea Shepherd visit those spots and collect the nets before the poachers can get to them.
The vaquita porpoise, a small, comically cute animal that has drawn international attention to the region, claims the Gulf of California as its sole habitat. With no more than 30 animals left, a single death represents a huge blow to conservation efforts.
Fishermen are not after the vaquita, but the animals can get trapped in the nets set out to catch totoaba, whose swim bladders can be sold for $20,000 per kilogram, according to Watson.
In its effort to pull nets, his group has cost the poachers millions of dollars, Watson said. On one occasion, a net contained 32 dead totoaba, which would have been worth $4 million. Humpback whales, sea lions, sea turtles, whale sharks and a great white shark have also been found trapped in the nets. When animals are found alive, they are set free.
"It's delicate situation," Watson said. "The fishermen don't have fish and are desperate for something that is worth so much money. Some of these fishermen are used to making $20,000 in one night, so they won't be appeased."
While fishermen have thrown rocks and even fish at the drones, the shooting was a first for the environmental group.
In a recent documentary on CNN, a member of the community that benefits from the illegal fishing industry, based around San Felipe in Baja Norte, threatened to defend his turf with machetes and swords. Later, fishermen burned an empty boat labeled "Sea Shepherd."
The conservation group has no authority to make arrests. The most it can do is collect evidence and alert the Mexican navy. However, when poachers are discovered they quickly motor to shore, load their boats into trucks and speed off.
Watson said Sea Shepherd will add a third boat to its operations in the Gulf of California.
"We're not going to be backing down," he said.