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.

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.

Dead vaquita entangled in a gill net set for totoaba. Photo by Omar Vidal licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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.”


Our best Conservation & Science stories of 2016

It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

We’ve shared how our care for the animals in our living collections—including snowy ploverscomb jellies, ocean sunfish and Pacific seahorses—contibutes to the conservation of their wild kin.

The Aquarium helps rehabilitate threatened Western snowy plovers.

We’ve visited the Canadian cousins of Monterey Bay’s sea otters, explored how sea otters use tools, and assisted scientists working to decode the sea otter genome.

We’ve collaborated with our colleagues in Baja, Mexico on a number of conservation missions—one of them involving ancient shark mummies. And we joined forces with U.S. aquariums and zoos to call for stronger protections for the endangered vaquita porpoises of the Gulf of California.

As 2016 comes to a close, let’s look back at the top 10 highlights from this blog:

White shark GIF_MBA
A white shark approaches schooling sardines.

10. Camera to Crack a White Shark MysteryOur senior reseach scientist teamed up with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for a high-tech mission: to capture video footage of great white sharks in their most mysterious habitat.

“Some of the engineering team said it was an impossible job,” MBARI Engineer Thom Maughan recalled. “But I’m attracted to those opportunities.”

Read more…

Aquariums come together to tackle plastic pollution

Makana stood on a cart at the front of the room and sized up the crowd. Her caretaker offered a few gestures to make her comfortable, scratching her under the chin and misting her with a spray bottle. Then the Laysan albatross partially opened her glossy dark wings, to appreciative murmurs from the audience.

It was as if she knew this was an especially important crowd to impress.

Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium 2016
Aimee David, director of ocean conservation policy and initiatives, addresses the Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium in Monterey.

Watching Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Makana Show” in front of our Kelp Forest Exhibit were more than 100 professionals from aquariums across the U.S. and Canada, along with experts from scientific institutions, nonprofit organizations and government agencies. They were gathered in Monterey for the first-ever Aquarium Plastic Pollution Symposium, which was hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Over the course of three days, from December 5-7, the group discussed how aquariums can work together to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in our ocean, rivers and lakes.

Read more…

Honoring Congressman Sam Farr’s ocean legacy

A surfbird hunts for prey in a Monterey Bay tide pool.

As a kid in the 1940s, Sam Farr used to frequent the tide pools on Carmel Beach, exploring and playing with the multitude of colorful creatures that lived there. But when he returned as an adult with his young daughter in tow, the tide pools weren’t quite how he remembered them.

“Not a single animal was there,” he recalls. “Not a sea urchin, not a sea anemone, not a hermit crab.”

The experience added to Farr’s already deep-seated belief that ocean health is crucial to the well-being of our planet and ourselves. First as a California State Assemblyman from 1980-1993, and then as a U.S. Congressman from 1993 to the present, he acted on that belief by creating state and federal legislation to protect our ocean and coast, and to support ocean research along Monterey Bay.

Now, after more than 40 years of public service, Farr is returning from Washington, D.C. to his home in Carmel, California to, in his words, “become a full-time grandfather” to his daughter Jessica’s children, Ella and Zachary.

On Dec. 1, 2016, Monterey Bay Aquarium honored Sam Farr’s lifelong contributions to ocean conservation at a reception for community leaders and philanthropists.

Read more…

Breeding seahorses to conserve their wild cousins

The courtship of Pacific seahorses begins with an awkward dance.

A close up of a Pacific seahorse (Hippocampus ingens) in the ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge special exhibit.

Over the course of several days, a female and a male seahorse will start to mimic each other’s movements. As their synchronization improves, the couple perfects a routine that involves circling each other, holding tails and swimming upward in unison.

“Their courtship dance involves going up the water column, so they need a few feet of vertical space,” says Jennifer O’Quin Anstey, senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Her responsibilities include looking after a suitably tall holding tank, in a back room with soft light, behind the aquarium’s ¡Viva Baja! exhibit.

Nearby, smaller tanks are full of baby seahorses. They look like miniature versions of the adults—but begin their lives a dark hue. Their color alternates between black and yellow as they mature.

“People kept telling me how difficult it was to rear them, which only made me more determined to do it,” Jenn says.

Read more…

Re-writing the future for coral reefs

The Paris Agreement— the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—became international law on November 4. Ratifying nations from both the developed and developing world have gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. Nations are now focusing on detailed steps to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Today’s guest post, focused on the important role of coral reefs, comes from Kristen Weiss of the Center for Ocean Solutions—a partnership between Stanford Woods Insititute for the Environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” -Miracle Max, The Princess Bride

A toadstool leather coral (Sarcophyton sp.) on exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Coral reefs have suffered from an intense global bleaching event that began in 2014, threatening more than 40% of the world’s corals and sparking environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen to write a controversial “Obituary for the Great Barrier Reef.” Global warming, plus last year’s El Niño event, are the key culprits in this mass bleaching.

Closer to home, reef habitats from Florida to the Gulf of Mexico have also been hard hit. Fortunately, despite this widespread devastation, there are still regions where at least some coral species have survived bleaching—in other words, where coral reefs are mostly dead, but still slightly alive. According to many coral biologists, that makes all the difference.

“In every bleaching event, there are survivors,” explains Professor Steve Palumbi of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. “Corals sitting right next to a bleached one that are not themselves bleached. Why? Do those corals just have the right genes? The right algal symbiont? The right micro-habitat? And do they give rise to the next generation of growing corals?”

Read more…

We’re taking action on climate change

The science could not be clearer: Earth’s climate and ocean chemistry are changing, and carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are the primary driver.

Aquarium employees reduce their carbon emissions by using alternative transportation.

As an organization grounded in science, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is as committed now as it ever has been to our mission of inspiring conservation of the ocean.

It’s important to us to work in the wider world, to engage with folks like you, and to walk the talk in our own business operations. That’s why we’re making changes that reduce our carbon emissions—and that we hope will inspire others to help shrink humanity’s global carbon footprint.

What we continue to do

Here at the Aquarium, we’re upgrading our infrastructure and transforming our business practices to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases.

Read more…

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