Can Military Dolphins Save This Tiny, Critically Endangered Porpoise?

Scientists want to round up the world’s last vaquitas to protect them from extinction. Cue Flipper.

Credit: Paula Olson/NOAA

The vaquita—pronounced va-KEE-ta—is a small, adorable porpoise native to the Gulf of California. It’s also the world’s most endangered cetacean, with fewer than 60 left in existence. Last week, in what can only be described as a conservation Hail Mary, scientists announced they want to round up as many vaquitas as they can and keep close watch over them in floating pens. And U.S. military dolphins are on a mission to help them do it.

That’s right—the U.S. Navy has trained dolphins (and sea lions) to detect mines and search for the presence of enemy divers. What sounds like the plot of a new James Bond flick is actually called the Navy Marine Mammal Program. The hope for vaquitas is that these cetacean sailors will use their echolocation skills and military training to locate their infamously elusive cousins.

Vaquitas swim the fewer than 1,000 square miles of turbid, muddy waters between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico. The tiny porpoises love this habitat because it’s chock-full of fish, but it’s also full of fishermen—fishermen who use gillnets.

“Gillnets are the number one threat to marine mammals in the world,” says Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist who leads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Genetics Group. “Hundreds of thousands of animals get entangled every single year.”

When a vaquita slams into a wall of mesh, its first instinct is to roll, but this only entangles the little mammal more. Soon it’s trapped below the surface of the water and unable to breathe. “It’s a pretty gruesome death,” Taylor says.

And in this stretch of the Gulf of California, gillnets are practically everywhere. “Every bit of the habitat [vaquitas] live in is within a few minutes of a fishing village with a panga that can put nets in the water,” she says, referring to the small fishing boats used locally. According to Taylor, the vaquitas literally have nowhere else to go.

Gillnets are little more than long spools of plastic mesh, but depending on the size of the net’s holes, it can ensnare all sorts of animals. (Gillnets even catch shrimp in the Gulf of California, since the local blue variety is huge.) Fish, mammals, and crustaceans swim right into the practically invisible netting and become entangled up to their fins and gills (if they have them). Fishermen then can come back to haul up the catch at their leisure.

The nets are also relatively inexpensive to buy and maintain. Setting them doesn’t require gasoline like other types of fishing gear such as trawls or longlines. Nor does one need a whole lot of experience or skill to deploy them.

Fortunately, in April of 2015, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto announced a two-year ban on gillnets in the shrimp fishery, expressly to save the vaquita. The country’s government even promised to spend millions of dollars compensating shrimp fishermen for not fishing. The news got even better last July when Peña Nieto and President Obama got together to turn that two-year gillnet ban into a permanent one. The two nations announced they would redouble efforts to find gillnet alternatives and remove discarded fishing gear still adrift in the Gulf of California. These jettisoned nets endanger vaquitas every bit as much as manned ones do.

These are steps in the right direction, says Zak Smith, a senior attorney at NRDC specializing in marine mammal protection, but there’s another wrinkle to this conservation story. The fate of the vaquita remains entwined with the fate of another critically endangered species you’ve probably never heard of, the totoaba.

Totoaba are sort of like the NFL linebackers of the gulf, Taylor explains. These fish can reach six feet in length and weigh more than 200 pounds. Even though fishing for totoaba has been banned in Mexico since 1975, it hasn’t stopped an international black market for totoaba swim bladders from emerging within the past decade. In China, the bladder of a totoaba can fetch up to $18,000 a pound, thanks to the (scientifically baseless) belief that the organ has medicinal properties. The market for them is so lucrative, in fact, some refer to the swim bladders as “aquatic cocaine.”

Many of the villages along the northern gulf were originally established by people seeking totoaba, says biologist Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the coordinator of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at the National Institute of Ecology in Mexico. “Everyone you interview, even young fishermen but especially older ones, most have fished for totoaba at some point in their life,” he says. “And, of course, now they are fishing more because of the illegal trade.”

And how do you catch a totoaba? With a gillnet.

Now that totoabas are so valuable, fishermen who might have been content to collect their government check to sit out the shrimp season are once again lining the Gulf of California with nets. Rojas-Bracho, who is currently working on a project to dredge up and recycle the many gillnets lost (or tossed) at sea, says he and his colleagues have even seen poachers tying the feet of live pelicans and seagulls to their nets. Since traditional buoys would tip off authorities, the birds are used to mark where the traps are set.

The Mexican navy patrols the gulf during totoaba breeding season in April and May, when the fish ascend out of the ocean’s depths and are easier to catch, but evading capture and prosecution is not difficult for poachers. For one thing, Mexico’s laws are written in such a way that to hold a fisherman liable for hauling up a totoaba, enforcement officers have to pretty much catch him in the act. This is unlikely because even when the navy boats are patrolling at night with all their lights out, you can hear them coming from a mile away. The poachers simply cut their nets and run or just say they’re fishing for corvina, a fish that’s legal to catch with a gillnet.

Sea Shepherd, an international nonprofit best known for harassing whalers, has even joined the fray, helping the navy monitor protected waters in what it calls Operation Milagro (using the Spanish word for “miracle”). While some of the methods of these high-seas vigilantes have earned their share of bad press in recent years, Rojas-Bracho calls their work with the navy “outstanding.”

Despite all these Herculean efforts, Taylor says acoustic monitoring surveys carried out in 2015 and 2016 revealed that the vaquita is still on the decline. That’s why Taylor and Rojas-Bracho are now endorsing the unthinkable: Taking the vaquitas out of their natural habitat for their own protection.

“In the wild, each vaquita has a 30 percent, or worse, chance of dying each year,” says Taylor. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And indeed, the rescue mission is a risky one. Any attempt to capture and contain a marine mammal can result in heightened stress levels, injury, and sometimes death, and vaquitas have so far never successfully been held in captivity. Veterinarians will be on hand throughout the current operation to monitor the vaquitas’ health and recommend release if their condition suddenly goes south.

“We’re dismayed that it’s come to this, but we’re reaching a crisis point with the vaquita,” says Smith. He says NRDC supports the effort to give vaquitas a temporary sanctuary until their natural habitat is secured—an outcome that must continue to be pursued.

This last point is crucial. If we can’t ensure a safe place for the last few dozen vaquitas on earth to eventually return to, all of the efforts to save them will be for naught.

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