An ambitious emergency plan to help save the vaquita porpoise from vanishing from the northern Gulf of California includes research gathered from harbour porpoises at Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. The rarest cetacean on the planet, the vaquita is now thought to be on the brink of extinction.
VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery) is an emergency action plan implemented by the Mexican government with the input of an international group of conservation scientists, marine mammal experts and veterinarians. It involves relocating some of the remaining vaquitas to a temporary sanctuary, while crucial efforts aimed at eliminating illegal fishing and removing gillnets from their environment continue. It is believed there are fewer than 60 vaquitas left.
It’s in the effort to locate the small, elusive cetaceans that animals at Vancouver Aquarium have played a role. The plan includes using dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program as one way of finding the vaquitas using echolocation, or biosonar. To estimate the dolphins’ biosonar detection range for vaquitas, scientists from the National Marine Mammal Foundation worked with researchers at Vancouver Aquarium to record “echoes” similar to what a dolphin would receive from the Aquarium’s trained harbour porpoises, which are closely related to the vaquita porpoise.
“We’re always happy when research done with animals at the Vancouver Aquarium benefits animals in the wild,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian. “This is just one example of that, and we’re hopeful that the plan will succeed.”
Once found, the wild porpoises will be maintained in enclosed pens where they can be protected from illegal gill net fishing, which has been killing them at an alarming rate. The plan acknowledges the many uncertainties involved in finding, catching and maintaining vaquitas in a temporary sanctuary. Vaquitas are not only rare, they avoid motorized vessels and no one can predict how they will react. Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead vaquita researcher and head of Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación De La Vaquita (or CIRVA, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita) said the expectation is that most vaquitas will remain in the wild as capturing even a few will be difficult. “Having some is still better than having none. The decline is happening faster than solutions for illegal fishing, so we need to have multiple strategies.”
The precipitous decline of the vaquita has been primarily driven by deaths of the porpoises in fishing gillnets. In 2015, the Mexican government instituted a two-year gillnet ban over the range of the vaquita. Additionally, the Mexican government implemented a financial compensation program to provide income to fishermen affected by the two-year gillnet ban. Despite strong enforcement, illegal gillnets are still being set to catch an endangered fish known as totoaba, the swim bladders of which fetch large sums of money on Hong Kong and Chinese black markets. Thus, despite tens of millions of dollars invested by the Mexican government in preventing vaquita by-catch, the population continues to decline.
“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources.
Recovery operations may begin in Mexico as early as May. The plan will be implemented in tandem with ongoing efforts to remove the threat of gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California and eliminate illegal fishing.
The emergency action plan has been adopted by Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) on the recommendation of the expert advisory group CIRVA. Under SEMARNAT leadership, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, The Marine Mammal Center, and the Chicago Zoological Society will help coordinate the efforts of a multi-institutional, international conservation team.
VaquitaCPR is an international conservation program led by SEMARNAT in coordination with the National Marine Mammal Foundation, The Marine Mammal Center, and the Chicago Zoological Society. Key collaborators in Mexico include Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INECC), Asociación Mexicana de Hábitats para la Interacción y Protección de Mamíferos Marinos (AMHMAR), Baja Aqua Farms, and Acuario Oceanico. United States collaborators include Duke University and the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contributing technical support. European collaborators include Dolfinarium Harderwijk, Aarhus University, and Fjord&Baelt. Additional support and expertise has been offered from Dolphin Quest, SeaWorld, and the Vancouver Aquarium. Generous financial support from the Waitt Foundation and the Disney Conservation Fund Rapid Response program helped with creation of the emergency action plan. VaquitaCPR operates as a private and public partnership, relying on both individual donors and government grants. For information about the plan, visit www.VaquitaCPR.org.