Conservation & Science

A last-ditch effort to save the vaquita

Spotting a vaquita in the northern Gulf of California is a bit like glimpsing a snow leopard in the Himalayas. Some local fishermen told a reporter they’ve never seen a vaquita—and doubt they even exist.

One day soon, they might be right. But not if a coalition of experts, working with the Mexican government, can help it.

Vaquita observers use binoculars capable of spotting vaquitas almost 2 miles away. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Barbara Taylor

Barbara Taylor is one of the few people who’s seen a vaquita—hundreds of them, she says, in her 20 years doing population surveys. As a conservation biologist and a long-time member of the vaquita recovery team, Barbara has the training, and the powerful binoculars, to locate the small porpoises.

When vaquitas surface to breathe, they do it subtly and disappear quickly; and they tend to keep their distance from boats. “They are almost impossible to see from a little panga on the water,” she says.

But there’s another reason few people have encountered vaquitas: They’re the most highly endangered marine mammal species on Earth. These shy, small porpoises were only discovered in the 1950s. The population dropped from an estimated 567, when Barbara’s team first surveyed them in the late 1990s, to fewer than 60 last year. (UPDATE: According to a report published Feb. 1, the population is now estimated at only 30 individuals.)

Vaquitas are found only in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico.

Faced with the species’ imminent extinction, Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources—with support from the U.S.-based National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF), The Marine Mammal Center, Chicago Zoological Society and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—has proposed a new project to find, catch and care for some of the last wild vaquitas.

That’s where an elite Navy team of bottlenose dolphins comes in.

Cetacean sleuthing

Dr. Forrest Gomez grew up visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In the late 1990s she began volunteering; that led to a staff position as a sea otter aquarist, and she soon began assisting Dr. Mike Murray, now the Aquarium’s director of veterinary services.

Dr. Mike, as he’s known, encouraged Forrest to attend vet school. “He truly mentored me,” she says. “Working at the Aquarium set me down a career path I was able to maintain.”

Dr. Forrest Gomez performs a physical exam on a wild dolphin. Photo taken under NOAA MMPA/ESA Permit No. 18786-01.

Forrest now provides lifelong care for the Navy’s military dolphins as NMMF’s deputy director of medicine. Under the vaquita conservation program, these dolphins, trained by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, will use their sonar to locate vaquitas in the wild.

“Vaquitas are so difficult to find,” says Dr. Cynthia Smith, executive director of the NMMF. “And Navy dolphins are really good at finding things.”

When a dolphin detects a vaquita, according to The Navy Times, it will indicate the porpoise’s approximate direction to its handlers. The handlers, in turn, will pass that information to the collection team, who will catch and transport the wild porpoises to nearby enclosed pens off the coast of San Felipe, Baja.

In these pens, vaquitas will be protected from the illegal gill nets that have been killing them at an alarming rate. The long-term goal, according to Cynthia, is to return them to the wild once the threat of gill nets is removed.

That threat, however, is extremely difficult to overcome. That’s because it’s driven by a black-market commodity: another severely endangered species, this one so lucrative, it’s known as “aquatic cocaine.”

The totoaba effect

In 2015, Mexican authorities imposed a two-year ban on gill-net fishing in vaquitas’ habitat. Last summer, with support from Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Mexico made the ban permanent.

A student scientist holds a totoaba in the Gulf of California. Beneath, a dead vaquita lies on a gill net. Photo by Omar Vidal

The ban ended the legal shrimp gill-net fishery, which had been ensnaring and drowning vaquitas as bycatch. But the ban wasn’t enough to stop the illegal gill-net poaching of totoaba, an endangered fish whose swim bladder is prized on the black market.

Totoaba swim bladders can fetch up to $10,000 each in China—an allure that, for many poachers, is worth the risk of getting busted. As the totoaba hunt goes on, vaquitas continue to be caught and killed as bycatch.

If nothing is done, Barbara says, vaquitas will be extinct within five years. The vaquita capture program is truly a last resort: “We are down to desperate measures.”

But she stresses that the vaquita conservation program must happen in addition to, not in place of, stepped-up enforcement of the gill-net ban. “We’re still pushing for the only solution that will allow vaquitas to be viable in the long term,” she says, “and that is getting gill nets out of their habitat.”

Cynthia agrees. “The potential extinction of the vaquita is alarming, and it’s paired with the potential extinction of the totoaba,” she says. “The Gulf of California is a very biologically rich area. Behind some of the urgency is the sense that if we let these go, it’s a slippery slope [to more extinctions].”

 Inspiration from condors

Experts acknowledge that capturing and breeding wild vaquitas is risky. “It’s going to be very difficult to find them and catch them,” Forrest says. “If we are lucky to get that far, the challenge is rapidly determining how to best care for them in a [captive] sanctuary situation. Nobody’s ever done that before.”

California condor in flight” by jnet is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The vaquita conservation plan is modeled on the captive breeding program that saved the California condor from extinction. In 1987, biologists captured the last wild condor and placed it in captivity with 26 of its kin. Today, thanks to an intensive, multi-organization captive breeding and release program, the California condor population now tops 400, including more than 200 in the wild.

“Standing on the beach in San Felipe, you can see mountains where California condors are again nesting,” Cynthia says. ““There’s a lot of lessons to be learned about how the condor plan played out.”

One lesson, Dr. Mike adds, is to remove the underlying threat to the wild population. In the condor’s case, that’s lead ammunition, which poisons the scavengers when they eat the carcasses of animals shot by hunters. A statewide ban on lead bullets, coupled with a public campaign to transition hunters to non-lead bullets, has finally given California condors a chance to thrive on their own.

The vaquita captive breeding effort could, in a few decades, meet with similar success. “I hope we will look back at this dramatic and angst-laden step with the vaquita with same degree of satisfaction,” Dr. Mike says.

Coalition to make a difference

The vaquita population has plummeted to about 10 percent of its 1997 level.

Karin Stratton, partnership program manager for Seafood Watch at the Aquarium, is also contributing to the effort through her involvement with the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) initiative. One SAFE project works to leverage consumer purchasing power for vaquita-friendly seafood products.

“Despite best efforts and intentions, these projects have not been enough to save the vaquita porpoise from illegal poaching for yet another endangered species, the totoaba,” Karin says. “The sanctuary strategy, proposed as the next step for vaquita recovery, is truly a last-ditch effort.

“That said, contributions to the SAFE projects will not stop. In fact, knowing that some vaquitas will be out of harm’s way will encourage us to continue our work to ensure a healthy, secure and poacher-free habitat for wild vaquitas to return to.”

An auspicious encounter

In all the years Barbara has studied wild vaquitas with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, one encounter stands out. It was late 2015, she says, and CBS News’ 60 Minutes had sent a film crew to Baja to document a vaquita survey. She knew the chances of recording the elusive porpoises on film were slim.

“One minute before we stopped [filming], we had an observer say, ‘We’ve got a vaquita,’” she recalls. “It was a very cooperative pair of vaquitas, and they swam around the boat. It was such an uplifting event, to have these vaquitas show up for the people who could save them.”

-Kera Abraham Panni

For more information about the vaquita conservation project and how you can help, visit the National Marine Mammal Foundation’s Vaquita CPR page.

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