Assisted Breeding for Mexico's Endangered Vaquita?
Jeremy Hance - The Guardian
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July 4, 2016

Sea Shepherd finds 3 dead vaquitas in 3 weeks (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)

Today, there are approximately 7.3 billion people on the planet – and only 60 vaquitas. The vaquita has seen its population drop by 92 percent in less than 20 years in Mexico’s Gulf of California as the tiny porpoises suffocate to death one-by-one in gillnets. Now, scientists with the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) are cautiously moving forward on a once unthinkable option: captive breeding.

“We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said Barbara Taylor, one of the world’s foremost experts on the vaquita with NOAA. “The uncertainties are large.”

Captive breeding of vaquita, if it ever happens, would be a last-ditch and incredibly risky action, according to scientists. The world’s smallest porpoise and cetacean, vaquita (Phocoena sinus) are shy and retiring with eye patches that have led them to be described fondly as the ‘pandas of the sea.’ These rarely-seen porpoises also have the smallest range of any cetacean, only inhabiting about 2,300 square kilometers of marine waters in Mexico.

Until now scientists have been more than willing to leave them in their home waters, even as they watched the population plummet over two decades. This is because it’s quite possible that any captured vaquitas would perish quickly outside of their habitat. And even if they don’t, trying to get a pair of vaquita to mate and produce a healthy calf under captive conditions would likely require lots of trial and error – and there aren’t many vaquita left to bargain with.

But after a survey in December, scientists realized that the situation had become “so dire that all conservation options need to be considered,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the chair of CIRVA and a vaquita expert.

In addition, porpoise husbandry and capture rates have improved to a point where vaquitas just might stand a chance in captivity, according to Taylor. Such facts helped push a number of members of CIRVA to recommend beginning research on what a captive program might look like.

Read the rest at The Guardian

Related: Why It's So Hard to Find, Let Alone Save, the World's Cutest Porpoise (Atlas Obscura)

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