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A Final Bid to Save the World’s Smallest Porpoise Ends in Heartbreak

Karin Brulliard - The Washington Post
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November 9, 2017

Scientists with Vaquita CPR returned the first captured vaquita, a small porpoise on the verge of extinction, into Mexico’s Gulf of California in mid-October. (Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources/Reuters)

When dozens of top marine-mammal experts and conservationists gathered in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez last month for a last-ditch rescue effort, they knew their mission was risky. They were there to catch some of the world’s last 30 vaquitas, in a bid to save the small porpoises by breeding them in captivity. Live capture had never been done before, and no one knew how the animals would cope with the stress.

It didn’t go well. The first one caught, a juvenile, was quickly released after veterinarians said it showed signs of stress. The second, a breeding-age female caught last weekend, died just a few hours after being placed in a protective floating pen. Instead of making strides toward salvation, the joint U. S.-Mexico rescue team, Vaquita CPR, had brought the population one individual closer to extinction.

In a statement, Vaquita CPR said it was “heartbroken by this devastating loss,” and this week it decided to suspend the capture program indefinitely. Now the team is reckoning with what, if anything, can be done to prevent the disappearance of a species before our eyes.

The project has for the time lowered its sights, focusing on counting the remaining animals by using underwater listening devices and taking photographs of their dorsal fins, each of which carries unique scars and markings. The Mexican government might give each one identified a name, officials said, in hopes that personalizing the cute cetaceans — known as “pandas of the sea” for the black rings around their eyes — might galvanize public attention.

“We do know we won’t be attempting any more captures” anytime soon, said one Vaquita CPR leader, Randy Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society’s dolphin research program in Sarasota, Fla. But maybe, he added, broadcasting that “there are so few of them that you can essentially give them all names is something that will cause more people to embrace their plight.”

The mission’s quick derailment was not a surprise to some groups that said they had not supported the idea from the start. Sea Shepherd, an activist group that patrols the vaquitas’ habitat to deter fishermen whose illegal nets sweep them up, said the project had “contributed to the possible extinction” of the porpoise and should be called “Vaquita RIP.” The Washington-based Animal Welfare Institute called for an “immediate halt” to the capture effort.

Read the rest at The Washington Post

Related: With Few Vaquitas Left, the Race is on to Save the World’s Smallest Porpoise (LadyFreeThinker)

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