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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.”
Say what you will about 2016—the world made some big waves to protect the ocean. As the sun sets on this year, let’s reflect on its brightest marine moments:
California votes to ban single-use plastic bags
November brought a big ballot win for ocean health. Thanks to voters, California now has the nation’s first law banning single-use plastic carryout bags statewide.
Working with our partners, the Aquarium campaigned in support of Proposition 67, the California ballot measure to uphold the statewide bag ban. We also urged a NO vote on the deceptive Proposition 65, which could have further delayed the ban’s implementation.
Voters agreed, approving Proposition 67 and rejecting Proposition 65. And just like that, single-use plastic carryout bags are now a thing of California’s past. The new law could prevent billions of plastic bags from polluting our ocean each year—which means a cleaner future for marine wildlife and coastal communities.
It’s been an exciting year for ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
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:
10. Camera to Crack a White Shark Mystery: Our 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.”
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.
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.
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s white shark tagging team recently made its annual visit to the Farallon Islands outside San Francisco Bay. The goal: to continue its long-term efforts to monitor a genetically distinct population of adult white sharks, which gathers at the islands each fall to gorge on seals and sea lions.
During the trip, team members took photos to identify individual sharks by their dorsal fin patterns, collected tissue samples for genetic research, and attached electronic tags to study these majestic ocean predators. Presley Adamson, associate producer and editor for the Aquarium’s film team, reports back on his experiences in the field.
It’s been two hours since we lost sight of the Golden Gate Bridge and, with it, any sign of civilization. Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, senior research scientist for Monterey Bay Aquarium; and Scot Anderson, a pioneering white shark expert and seasonal researcher for the Aquarium, are somehow sleeping through the relentless rocking and rolling of our sailboat. I’m too excited to sleep.
Choppy waves have kept us stuck on shore for six straight days. Today, the waters are finally calm enough for us to cross the 25 miles of open ocean between San Francisco and the Farallon Islands.
The Farallones are technically part of the City of San Francisco, but we won’t find any subdivisions or grocery stores here. The islands, their surrounding waters, and their plant and animal inhabitants are protected in the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
More elephant seals and sea lions than people visit the Farallones. The abundance of blubbery pinnipeds attracts some of the largest white sharks in the world, who hang around the islands looking for a meal.
Sal and Scot have brought me along to document this year’s research season. I’m armed with six cameras that need to be set up before we get to the Farallones. I also need to put on foul-weather gear—boots, life jacket, raincoat, and other gear to stay warm and dry. But I’m distracted by a pod of humpback whales next to our boat, showing off their giant flukes as they go about their own morning commute.
I can just start to make out a lone pinnacle emerging from the sea. We’re almost there.
From Nov. 7-18, 2016, delegates from the world’s nations gathered in Marrakech, Morocco, for the 2016 U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP22. With the Paris Agreement—the strongest global commitment to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases—now in effect, nations focused on how to meet reduction targets designed to keep Earth’s atmospheric temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Dr. Kyle Van Houtan, the Aquarium’s director of science, attended the conference to address how carbon emissions affect ocean health. Here, Kyle shares his reflections about the conference.
The skylines of Marrakech are framed by stark contrasts. There is the adobe-pink Medina, the ancient city and the heart of Marrakech; modern hotels and bustling urban roundabouts; and the massive, snow-capped Atlas Mountains that hold back the Sahara Desert. The people of Marrakech are mostly of Berber ethnic heritage, and the locals I met were exceedingly conversational, kind and curious.
Nearly 30,000 delegates, speakers, students and emissaries from scores of countries passed through security checkpoints to the tent city where the COP22 meetings were held. We were on the outskirts of town, in a district called Bab Ighli, next to extensive royal olive groves. The tent “rooms”—which became increasingly hot as the day went on, with crowds of up to a few hundred people per room—were appropriately named after the seas of the world: Arctic, Mediterranean, Caribbean.
Following the landmark agreement at last year’s U.N. climate change conference in Paris (COP21), the Marrakech conference was expected to be a quieter, less exciting gathering focused on the business of implementing the Paris accord. But a few things happened on the way to Marrakech that elevated its importance.
The courtship of Pacific seahorses begins with an awkward dance.
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.