In a true sign of desperate times requiring desperate measures, four U.S. Navy search dolphins will be deployed on Thursday in the Gulf of California—the sea separating Baja from mainland Mexico—to help locate a critically endangered type of porpoise known as the vaquita. It’s part of a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction.
Scientists estimate that there are only 30 vaquita porpoises left alive in the gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez, the only waters these animals are known to inhabit. Now, in order to keep this rare porpoise—which is the world’s smallest marine mammal—from vanishing altogether, the Mexican government has teamed up with the U.S. Navy and an international coalition of marine scientists and conservation experts. Together, they’re attempting to catch some of the porpoises, and relocate them to a refuge where they can be held and possibly bred until it is safe to re-release them into the wild. The plan has already sparked controversy among conservationists and marine biologists alike.
“Nobody has done this at this scale in the world,” Dr. Lorenzo Rojos-Bracho, head of marine mammal conservation and research for the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change in Mexico, told Earther. As one of the central figures behind the operation, dubbed “Vaquita CPR”, Rojos-Bracho admits that coordinating the seven ships, four dolphins, and the hundreds of experts participating in the project was a massive undertaking. “It seemed like a crazy idea at that time,” he said about when the idea was first proposed a year ago, “and now we are almost ready to start.”
In addition to audio sensors installed along the sea floor and boats of spotters equipped with high-powered binoculars, Dr. Rojos Bracho’s team will utilize the four Navy dolphins to help initially locate the difficult to track vaquita. The dolphins have been specially trained to identify the porpoise and to ring a bell hanging off the side of a boat when they spot one.
“Going out and finding other marine life is a novel and unique mission that they are being asked to play,” Jim Fallin, director of public affairs for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Pacific Center, the navy research lab that trained the search dolphins, told Earther. According to Fallin, the dolphins are typically used for detecting underwater objects like mines or aiding navy swimmers. “Dolphins have extremely sensitive, highly refined abilities to do discrete searches in the ocean. That’s how they surive in the wild,” explained Fallin. “What we did to train them was create an echo signature of a vaquita porpoise, and we have conditioned the dolphins to recognize this signature.”
Even with the help of elite Navy dolphins, finding the vaquita will not be easy. Characterized by black rings around its eyes and a black line that extends like lipstick from its mouth to its dorsal fin—like a panda bear or a goth teenager—vaquitas are the smallest species of porpoise, measuring on average a little under five feet long. They are extremely elusive, and there just aren’t that many of them left.
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.
Coveted for their medicinal and aphrodisiac properties, the totoaba fish’s swim bladder is sold on Chinese black markets for prices upwards of $50,000 per bladder. The high demand and consequent price tag for the bladder has fueled illegal gillnet fishing in the Gulf of California, which has devastated both the totoaba and vaquita populations.
“You would get more money for a totoaba swim bladder than you would get for cocaine,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diveristy, told Earther. “It’s very highly coveted, and so we saw a huge upswing in fishing for totoaba in the gulf of California over the past seven years.”
In response to the alarming decline of vaquitas—as well as pressure from well-positioned conservationists like Leonardo DiCaprio—the Mexican government has taken a number of measures to protect the vaquita, beginning with the establishment of a refuge area in the northern part of the gulf of California during the 1990s. The refuge did little to halt the decline of the vaquita populaton though, and in May 2015, Mexican president Pena Nieto temporarily banned the use of gillnets in more than 5,000 square miles of vaquita habitat, making that ban permanent last June. Despite a government-funded compensation program, local fisherman who depended on the totoaba to get them through hard times were outraged by the bans. Illegal fishing continued despite efforts by the Mexican navy and international organizations like Sea Shepard to patrol the sea and catch poachers in the act.
With the extinction of vaquita in the wild highly likely, the Mexican government hopes that the Vaquita CPR project will be able to preserve a few of these petite porpoises, at least until we can figure out how to get things right—but not all conservationists or scientists are on board .
“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. “Habitat and species must go together.” Sea Shepard’s boats scour the Gulf of California’s sea floor to retrieve “ghostnets” left behind by illegal gillnet fisherman. “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.”
Rojos-Bracho agrees that gillnet fishing practices must stop, not just for the vaquitas but for the hundreds of other bycatch species that are entangled in gillnets around the world. “We really must develop alternative fishing methods,” he said. But for now Vaquita CPR may be the only chance this dying breed of porpoise may have.
Some marine biologists aren’t even sure it’s that. “I worry both that capture and captive-breeding will result in the deaths of more vaquita, AND that doing nothing will lead to extinction” Trevor Branch, a fisheries biologist at the University of Washington, wrote on Twitter this week. Others echoed his sentiment.
There are a lot of challenges and even more unknowns. Vaquitas are notoriously shy—few have seen them in the wild, and no one has ever caught one alive before. Little is known about how they would fare in captivity or react to the trauma of capture. But Rojos-Bracho has faith in his team. “We are looking with a magnifying glass at everything we do, and we have experts from almost everything we do from all around the world,” he said.
The race to capture the vaquita officially begins on Thursday and will continue until mid-November. No matter how tough the odds, Rojos-Bracho believes humans have an obligation to try. “We have been responsible for driving the vaquita to extinction,” he said. “So now, we are responsible for saving the species for future generations. This is to me is like saving a masterpiece. Why would we let a masterpiece be destroyed?”