British scientists in mission to save last 30 vaquita porpoises from extinction

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Author: James Badcocok for The Telegraph

An extraordinary mission to save vaquita porpoises from extinction has got off to a promising start in the Gulf of California, where military dolphins are being used to help round up and capture the world’s rarest marine mammal and move them to a sanctuary.

A vaquita porpoise caught in a banned gillnet in the Gulf of California, Mexico - Minden Pictures
A vaquita porpoise caught in a banned gillnet in the Gulf of California, Mexico - Minden Pictures

Illegal fishing methods, including banned gillnets have seen the number of vaquita porpoises, known as the “panda of the sea” for their strange beauty, plummet so low there were fears none would be found. It is believed there is less than 30 vaquitas left in the wild.

But The Telegraph has learned from sources involved in the rescue mission that the first day out on the water on Friday produced “multiple sightings”.

US Navy dolphins have been trained to seek out the vaquitas and leap out of the water when they locate a specimen, alerting the capture team, which includes veterinarians.

The porpoises will be temporarily held in an ocean sanctuary off the coast of San Felipe while their natural habitat is made safe, including removing the threat of gillnets.

The enterprise is not without risk. Wild bottlenose dolphins have been known to hunt and kill porpoises, and nothing is known about how the vaquita will fare in captivity.

It is believed there is less than 30 vaquitas left in the wild
It is believed there is less than 30 vaquitas left in the wild

“If the vaquitas stay out in the water, they will all die in fishing nets,” Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, leader of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, said.

“We went down to 30 in last year’s acoustic survey and we have seen seven dead in gillnets since then, so the situation is absolutely dire.”

Encouraged by Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental foundation and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto recently converted a temporary ban on gillnets into a permanent one.

But the traps continue to plague the area, despite the efforts of groups including the NGO Sea Shepherd, which has used drones in a bid to catch clandestine fishermen operating at night.

Vaquitas are an accidental bycatch in the fishermen’s attempts to catch totoaba, a fish whose dried swim bladder sells for huge sums of money in China, where it is believed to have extraordinarily healthy properties.

According to Dr Rojas-Bracho, one single large 500-gram swim bladder can be worth as much as $5,000 to a fisherman.

Nothing is known about how the vaquita will fare in captivity
Nothing is known about how the vaquita will fare in captivity

“They call it the cocaine of the sea,” said Dr Barbara Taylor, a conservation geneticist from University California San Diego, who is among around 80 scientists from eight countries involved in what she calls “a Hail Mary” attempt to save the vaquita.

“The entire distribution of these gillnets is within half a day’s boat ride. This problem looked solvable because it was so specific. But there has never been a commitment from Mexican government to develop alternative fishing gear and the regulatory muscle to enforce bans.”

It was British ingenuity that prompted vaquita researchers into such desperate measures.

A small Cornwall-based company called Chelonia developed listening devices that capture the vaquita’s clicking sounds, enabling scientists to monitor the freefall of numbers from around 250 a decade ago.

“Detecting the clicks with our underwater C-PODs is relatively simple. Working out that they are porpoise clicks requires a software that looks for trains of clicks that pertain to that animal, with its rate of around 30-40 clicks a second. No one else has managed to crack train detection,” said Nick Tregenza, Chelonia’s founder and an internationally renowned expert in marine mammals who has visited Mexico four times over the past decade to instruct the local scientists in the operation of his equipment.

As well as holding areas at sea, a land-based facility has been prepared to hold vaquitas when winter storms make floating pens impractical. Vets will take samples for rapid freezing and conservation.

“In 10 years we could do what they are trying to do with the white rhino,” Dr Rojas-Bracho said in reference to an IVF-stem cell programme launched to save Africa’s rarest mammal.

“We can do tissue culture and save some cells and you can do a lot with those things in the future, even cloning. Some people say: ‘why don’t you let them die out with dignity?’ But there is no dignity in extinction.”

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October 23, 2017 |

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