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Mexico takes ‘unprecedented’ action to save vaquita

  • A team of marine mammal experts have begun a search for the last vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) in a last-ditch effort to capture the remaining 30 porpoises until they’re no longer threatened by gillnets.
  • VaquitaCPR seeks to house the vaquita in sea pens and includes plans for long-term care and breeding.
  • Though seen as ‘risky’ and ‘bold,’ many conservation organizations agree that finding the animals before it’s too late is the only option.

A team of marine mammal experts is searching for the last vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) in the Gulf of California. They’ve gathered in northern Mexico, at the invitation of the government of Mexico, to make a last-ditch effort to capture and keep the remaining 30 porpoises safe until they’re no longer threatened by the gillnets that have decimated their numbers in recent years.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s minister of the environment and natural resources, in a January 2017 statement from the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). “This critical rescue effort is a priority for the Mexican government and we are dedicated to providing the necessary resources in order to give the plan its best chance of success.”

An illustration of a vaquita by Greenpeace Mexico. Photo ©Greenpeace / Marcelo Otero.

In April, the government committed $3 million to help fund Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery, or VaquitaCPR. CIRVA, the Spanish acronym for the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, came up with the strategy, and it includes the possibility of long-term care and a breeding program at a newly built facility on land. In the meantime, authorities plan to clamp down on illegal gillnet fishers hunting for IUCN-listed critically endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a fish whose swim bladders sell for thousands of dollars in Asian markets. The government made a temporary ban on gillnets permanent in the vaquita’s range in June 2017.

Ultimately, CIRVA wants to release captured critically endangered vaquita — and perhaps their offspring — back into the northern Sea of Cortez.

“Rescuing these animals and placing them in a temporary sanctuary is necessary to protect them until their natural habitat can be made safe,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a vaquita expert and the head of CIRVA, in a statement from NMMF.

Trying to protect an entire species by corralling its remaining members into safe sea pens is “unprecedented,” but it’s also imperative, says the conservation NGO WWF.

Vaquita will be temporarily kept in floating sea pens, pictured here near San Felipe, Mexico. Photo by Kerry Coughlin / National Marine Mammal Foundation.

“Although CPR faces a lot of uncertainty and is highly risky, WWF recognizes it as a necessary action to save the vaquita from extinction,” said Jorge Rickards, CEO of WWF-Mexico, in a statement.

Since 2012, WWF has backed a program to pull abandoned “ghost nets,” before they inflict more damage on the vaquita population, from the Gulf of California using a new type of sonar and US Navy-trained dolphins. The group also supports acoustic monitoring by the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change of Mexico to estimate how many vaquita remain. Both involve local fishermen and women, and rescue crews are using the monitoring capability to home in on the locations of vaquita.

As vaquita numbers have dwindled, the species has drawn hopeful comparisons to the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the concerted conservation effort that pulled the handful of remaining birds back from the edge of extinction, though there are differences.

“Unlike condors, we expect that most vaquitas will remain in the wild as capturing even a few will be very difficult,” Rojas-Bracho said in the January 2017 NMMF statement. But in his view, safeguarding them until the Gulf of California is gillnet-free is their only option. “Having some is still better than having none. The decline is happening faster than solutions for illegal fishing, so we need to have multiple strategies.”

Members of the VaquitaCPR rescue team working with lightweight nets that will be used to capture vaquita porpoises. Photo by Ru Mahoney, courtesy of NMMF.

Sam Ridgeway, the president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, said that he hoped the vaquita succeeds as the condor did, though he knows it won’t be easy.

“We recognize that the odds are stacked against us,” Ridgway said in the January 2017 statement.

Unfortunately, as he reported in a recent blog post, other species haven’t been so lucky. He pointed out that scientists had realized in 1986 that fishing, shipping and industrialization had driven the number of the Yangtze river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), or baiji, down to around 100.

“Rescue measures were suggested and discussed at the workshop, but no action was taken,” Ridgeway wrote. Later, in 2006, a survey failed to turn up any evidence of a dolphin species that had been around for the past 20 million years, and the IUCN currently considers the animal critically endangered but “possibly extinct.”

That’s what has led many conservation groups to conclude that they have little choice but to take such drastic measures to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

“The rescue project is, quite literally, the last chance to save the vaquita,” Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said in the October NMMF release. “We know and accept that the rescue plan is risky, but if we do nothing, extinction of the vaquita is certain.”

Fewer than 30 vaquita survive in the wild. Photo in the public domain by Paula Olson / NOAA.

Banner image of two vaquita by Paula Olson / NOAA.

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