Navy Dolphins to Help Locate Rare Vaquita Porpoises
Sandra Dibble - The Los Angeles Times
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January 1, 2017

In a last-ditch effort to save the world's smallest porpoise from extinction, an international team of experts plans to capture and breed the vaquita. (NewsBeat Social)

The U.S. Navy for decades has deployed bottlenose dolphins to search for underwater mines and detect enemy divers. Now, the versatile sea mammals and their San Diego-based trainers are preparing for an unprecedented challenge: locating some of the few surviving vaquita porpoises in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California.

Members of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, the dolphins are part of a team being assembled on both sides of the border aimed at capturing live vaquitas — something that has never been accomplished. For an international group of scientists determined to save the species from near-certain extinction, it represents a final hope.

Spearheaded by Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, the plan involves removing vaquitas from the open water in their habitat in the Upper Gulf of California and keeping them safe from illegal gill nets, where they often end up as by-catch and drown.

A group of experts, including porpoise and veterinary care specialists, is expected to attempt the capture in the spring. It is unknown whether the small sea mammal would even survive captivity.

The operation “has to be done in a very careful, staged manner,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

Scientists say the vaquita population has dwindled over the past two decades — from 567 in an initial survey in 1997 to fewer than 60.

Despite a massive two-year plan launched in April 2015 by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration that includes an expanded ban on gill-net fishing in the porpoise’s habitat, the vaquita population has continued to fall — largely because of the rampant illegal fishery for totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladders fetch exorbitant prices in China.

The new approach would involve placing vaquitas inside a protective pen off the coast of San Felipe, with the hope that they might have a better chance for survival. If all goes well, they also might breed and reproduce.

Read the rest at The Los Angeles Times

Related: China Joins US and Mexico to Shut Down Totoaba Trafficking to Save Endangered Vaquitas (Seafood News)

Related: 'Real-Life Pokémon' from Mexico Growing in Popularity as Pets, Despite Restrictions (CBC News)

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