Never Underestimate the Challenge of Saving a Critically Endangered Species [Updated]

Sea of Cortez. Image: AP
Sea of Cortez. Image: AP

Saving a life is hard; saving a species is heroic. Scientists and conservationists were reminded of this fact this week when they were forced to abandon their last-ditch, Hail Mary plan to save the vaquita, a tiny porpoise barely hanging on to survival off the coast of Baja, Mexico.

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Launched a month ago, the expensive rescue mission at first met with some success, catching two of the 15 or so remaining vaquitas inhabiting the Sea of Cortez. But then things went south. The plan was to relocate the porpoises and help keep them alive in captivity where they wouldn’t be threatened by illegal fishing boats. The problem was nobody knew how they would respond to life in a sea pen. Apparently, very poorly.

The first captured individual, a calf, had to be released almost immediately because it was so stressed. Last week, a captured adult female—one of the few vaquitas alive that could reproduce—died before it could be released.

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Once the female died, on November 4th, the 67-person team halted the operation, a joint undertaking by the Mexican government and the U.S. Navy called VaquitaCPR. On Friday, Science News reports it is being called off for good.

“There’s nothing worse than having an animal die in your hands,” Frances Gulland, the lead VaquitaCPR veterinarian and a scientist at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, told Science News.

The remaining team will now focus on trying to get detailed photographs of the remaining vaquitas in the Gulf of California, their only habitat, in order to help keep track of them. (There are also very few photos of the vaquita, a source of frustration for this reporter, who has been exposed to the photo below far too many times over the years).

Image: National Geographic Stock/Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures / WWF
Image: National Geographic Stock/Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures / WWF
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As Earther contributor Daniel Setiawan previously reported:

For the past 30 years the vaquita population has been decimated by illegal fishing practices. In 1990, there were an estimated 700 vaquita porpoises, but by 2010 there were less than 60. In addition to shrimp farming practices during the 90s, experts agree that the overwhelming majority of vaquitas today are killed when they become entangled in gillnets set illegally by fisherman hunting for another endangered aquatic species endemic to the Gulf of California: the totoaba. Gillnets are large net walls that hang vertically in the water. They’re made from transparent monofilament line that fish and other animals are unable to see.

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The ambitious plan to save the tiny porpoise, which deployed trained search dolphins to seek them out along with a small armada of boats, had sparked controversy among conservationists and marine biologists from the get-go.

“What’s the point of saving a species if you can’t protect the habitat that the species is in?” Sea Shepard founder, Paul Watson, told Earther last month. “Habitat and species must go together.”

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“What we want the Mexican government to do, and what we have asked them to do, is have stiffer sentences and more enforcement,” he said. “If you can stop the poachers, you can save the vaquita.”

In a foreshadowing tweet, Trevor Branch, a fisheries biologist at the University of Washington, wrote last month that he worried “both that capture and captive-breeding will result in the deaths of more vaquita, AND that doing nothing will lead to extinction.”

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Sad, but probably true.

Update: A previous version of this post included text from another Earther.com post that was not properly quoted. The article has been updated to properly attribute this material.

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News editor at Earther.com.

DISCUSSION

artiofab
artiofab

The plan was to relocate the porpoises and help keep them alive in captivity

Depends strongly on the definition of “captivity”; some people in the audience might read that and think that the VaquitaCPR program intended on putting the vaquita into aquariums, whereas their plan (as you mention elsewhere in the article) was to section off part of the Sea of Cortés.

.The project, which has been recommended by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), involves locating, rescuing and then temporarily relocating the vaquitas to an ocean sanctuary off the coast of San Felipe.

Last week, a captured adult female—one of the few vaquitas alive that could reproduce—died before it could be released.

Released where? She had been released into a sea pen. Reading what VaquitaCPR reported.

A mature female vaquita, not pregnant or lactating, had been caught and transported successfully late in the afternoon on Saturday in the Northern Gulf of California and was taken to a specially-modified floating sea pen known as ElNido, or The Nest. From the moment of capture, the vaquita was under constant care and observation for its health and safety. Marine mammal veterinarians monitoring the vaquita’s health noticed the animal’s condition began to deteriorate and made the determination to release. The release attempt was unsuccessful and life saving measures were administered. Despite the heroic efforts of the veterinary team, the vaquita did not survive.

It sounds like the individual had been released into a sea pen, she didn’t take well to semi-captivity, she was back in transport to where she had been captured, and then somewhere in transport/release into the wild her health status went into unsaveable emergency conditions.

There are also very few photos of the vaquita, a source of frustration for this reporter

True, which is why I’m glad that VaquitaCPR supplied at least one partial photograph of a live vaquita.