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U.S. Navy Dolphins Join The Fight To Save Endangered Vaquita Porpoises

They'll be deployed in Mexico this spring to help locate the world's rarest marine mammal.

01/04/2017 12:24 pm ET
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A critically endangered vaquita entangled in a gill net. U.S. Navy-trained dolphins will be deployed this spring in an effort to find the rare marine mammal.

A “dream team” of scientists and veterinary specialists has been assembling in a last-ditch effort to save the critically endangered vaquita ― the world’s smallest porpoise and rarest marine mammal.

With fewer than 60 of the species now left on the planet, the Mexican government launched the “risky” rescue mission last month. The aim is to capture — and hopefully conserve — as many vaquitas as possible.

This week, a skilled new addition to the capture team was announced. Dolphins have joined the fight to save the vaquita, the U.S. Navy confirmed.

Armed with their natural sonar abilities, bottlenose dolphins are excellent underwater detectives. Their ability to find targets in deep or murky water is said to be unmatched by existing technology. The Navy has used the animals to conduct underwater searches for decades; military dolphins are reportedly extremely adept at detecting underwater mines or enemy divers.

So it’s no wonder that conservationists have enlisted the dolphins’ help to save fellow aquatic mammals.

Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific told The Associated Press this week that the Navy, in collaboration with Mexican authorities, plans to deploy some of its trained dolphins to the Gulf of California ― the only place in the world where the vaquita lives.

The dolphins will be launched into the Gulf from a boat, Fallin said. If they find a vaquita, they will “signal that by surfacing and returning” to their handlers.

The ability of the Navy’s dolphins to track porpoises has already been proven, according to Mike Rothe, head of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program. Last year, some of them were transported to San Francisco Bay to locate a group of porpoises, where they were able to “detect and report” the right target, Rothe told the San Diego Union-Tribune. 

Roth said four Navy dolphins would be involved in the “large effort” to capture vaquitas this spring. “[It’s] going to involve an international group that’s going to have a lot of different boats, a lot of different ways” to look for the rare creature, he said. “There will probably be some aircraft, and there will definitely be some watercraft. We would be another capability searching for the vaquita.”

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A U.S. Navy-trained bottlenose dolphin with his handler. Dolphins are better than machines at detecting mines, according to experts.

Vaquitas have been under serious threat since the 1990s, mostly from gill nets that local fishermen set to catch shrimp and fish, including the critically endangered totoaba. The porpoises get trapped in these nets and drown.

The dangers facing vaquitas have intensified in recent years, prompting a “catastrophic decline” of the species. Demand for the totoaba, also endemic to the Gulf of California, has fueled this collapse. The fish’s swim bladder, also known as maw, is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. Dubbed “aquatic cocaine,” it can sell for as much as $10,000 a kilogram, or almost $5,000 a pound. 

Last year, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, or CIRVA, a conservation group established by the Mexican government, said that the totoaba trade and unsustainable fishing techniques had devastated the vaquita population.

Possibly as little as eight breeding females are among the fewer than 60 vaquitas remaining in the wild, the group said. Without immediate action to protect the species, vaquitas could be extinct by 2022. 

Reuters
A dead vaquita. Fewer than 60 of the species remain on Earth,  CIRVA said last year.

A string of conservation efforts, spearheaded by Mexico and the U.S., have since been introduced in an attempt to save the species from the brink. In October, the International Whaling Commission approved an emergency resolution to permanently ban gill net fishing from the vaquita’s range. Mexican authorities have also been removing so-called “ghost” fishing nets from the vaquita’s habitat that had been dumped or lost at sea. They’re also using drones with high-resolution cameras to detect illegal fishing in the Gulf. 

CIRVA announced last month its most dramatic conservation plan yet. It would attempt to capture as many vaquitas as possible, with the aim of breeding them in captivity.

A group of international scientists, including acoustic monitoring and porpoise capture experts, was being recruited to lead the project, said CIRVA chairman Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho at the time. “The team is the best that can be put together in the world. It is the ‘dream team,’” he told the AP.

The plan, however, is not without controversy.

Vaquitas have never before been kept in captivity and experts fear that the animals could die in the process, thus condemning the species to certain extinction.

Captivity is “not a desirable or practical option for the vaquita,” Omar Vidal, Mexico director of the World Wildlife Fund, told the AP. “We must strive to save this porpoise where it belongs: in a healthy Upper Gulf of California.”

Proponents of the capture plan, however, have insisted that the urgency to save the species far outweighs these dangers.

“Without a doubt this will be the last call for the vaquita,” Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s environment secretary, told Mexican newspaper Excelsior last month of the capture project. “We are doing all we can to avoid its extinction.” 

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