Scientists Rescue First Vaquita Porpoise, Making Conservation History

 

Copia de Vaquita en el nido

VaquitaCPR Demonstrating Success in Locating Endangered
Vaquita Porpoises as Field Operations Continue

SAN FELIPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA – Scientists with the VaquitaCPR conservation project and Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment Rafael Pacchiano announced today they succeeded in locating and rescuing a highly endangered vaquita porpoise yesterday, but in an abundance of caution the vaquita, which was a calf, was released.  Experts say the calf was being closely monitored by marine mammal veterinarians and showed signs of stress, leading to its release.

“The successful rescue made conservation history and demonstrates that the goal of VaquitaCPR is feasible,” said Secretary Pacchiano.  “No one has ever captured and cared for a vaquita porpoise, even for a brief period of time. This is an exciting moment and as a result, I am confident we can indeed save the vaquita marina from extinction.

Experts had planned extensively for the scenario that unfolded on Wednesday and every precaution was taken to safeguard the health of the vaquita calf, which was estimated to be about six months old.

vaquitaCPR-recovery-4

“While we were disappointed we could not keep the vaquita in human care, we have demonstrated that we are able to locate and capture a vaquita,” said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a senior scientist with SEMARNAT, CIRVA and VaquitaCPR Program Director. “We also succeeded in transporting one and conducting health evaluations that are part of our protocols safeguarding the animals’ health.”

Scientists returned the vaquita calf to the same spot in the Gulf of California where it was originally located and where other vaquitas were observed.  Before releasing the vaquita, various tissue samples were taken which scientists will analyze and share with colleagues at other research institutions like the Frozen Zoo in San Diego, California which will conduct genetic sequencing.

The precedent-setting rescue comes as the bold conservation plan led by the Mexican government (SEMARNAT) to save the endangered vaquita porpoise from extinction enters its second week of field operations.  During the first three days, scientists spotted several vaquitas using visual search methods and acoustic monitoring.  Vaquitas were repeatedly located by the VaquitaCPR ‘find’ team.

The vaquita porpoise, also known as the ‘panda of the sea,’ is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Latest estimates by scientists who have been monitoring the vaquita for decades show there are fewer than 30 vaquitas left in the wild.  The vaquita only lives in the upper Gulf of California.

vaquita-recovery-2
Secretary Pacchiano has visited the VaquitaCPR facilities in San Felipe several times and accompanied scientists during a day of field operations on the Sea of Cortez. “The individuals involved in this unprecedented conservation project are the best in their respective fields,” said Secretary Pacchiano.  “I’ve personally witnessed their dedication and incredible expertise.  We’re all committed to saving the vaquita porpoise and this is the team who can do it.”

The project, which has been recommended by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), involves locating, rescuing and then temporarily relocating the vaquitas to an ocean sanctuary off the coast of San Felipe. The explicit goal of CPR is to return the vaquitas to their natural habitat once the primary threat to their survival has been eliminated. Experts from all over the globe, including Mexico, the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are all working together on VaquitaCPR.

VaquitaCPR field operations, including efforts to locate and bring vaquitas into temporary sea pens, began on October 12 and are expected to continue for several weeks.

Windy conditions prevented VaquitaCPR field operations from taking place at sea for three days.  When there are sustained winds of more than about eight knots, conditions on the water are too choppy for scientists to visually locate vaquitas.  It also could risk the safety of vaquitas during the capture operation.

 

“We’ve unfortunately been at the mercy of the weather and were in the position of ‘waiting on the wind’ for several days,” said Dr. Cynthia Smith, VaquitaCRP Program Manager.  “However, the time hasn’t been wasted, as there has been a tremendous amount of productive discussion at all hours of the day as we continue to refine the process of rescuing the animals. Now that we’re back on the water and conditions are better, the entire team is optimistic and working together seamlessly to support the mission.”

In an unprecedented move in April of 2015 that demonstrated Mexico’s commitment to conservation, President Peña Nieto announced a two-year gillnet ban throughout the vaquitas’ range, compensated fishermen and related industries for their loss of income, and enhanced multi-agency enforcement of the ban led by the Mexican Navy.

In June of 2017, the ban on gillnet fishing was made permanent. The government also launched an extensive survey of the vaquita population using an approach that included both visual monitoring and advanced techniques that use sound to locate the animals.  All told, the Mexican government has committed more than $100 million in an effort to protect the vaquita and support the local fishing community.

A crucial part of CPR is the acoustic monitoring system that will help to locate the remaining vaquitas. This monitoring has been supported since 2012 by WWF and operated by the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change of Mexico (INECC) to help estimate the vaquita’s population, and will continue during the CPR operations.  WWF will also continue supporting the retrieval of lost or abandoned “ghost” nets, many of them illegal, which drift aimlessly and continue to entangle and kill vaquitas and other marine species. Both the acoustic monitoring and the net retrieval are conducted with the help and experience of local fishermen.

VaquitaCPR is led by Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

The National Marine Mammal Foundation, Chicago Zoological Society and the Marine Mammal Center are primary partners in this extraordinary conservation effort.

VaquitaCPR operates as a private and public partnership, relying on both private donors and government funds. VaquitaCPR has many key collaborators including the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and groups like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Baja Aqua Farms, and Museo de la Ballena.

As part of VaquitaCPR, large floating sea pens will be anchored off the coast of San Felipe, where veterinarians and animal care experts will carefully monitor the health of any vaquitas that are successfully rescued.  The sea pens have been designed and built by Baja Aqua Farms, a fish farm operation based in Ensenada.

The Museo de la Ballena’s mission is to promote the knowledge, study and conservation of cetaceans. Since the museum initiated a conservation operation last year, its vessel has succeeded in retrieving more than 900,000 linear feet of ‘ghost’ and illegal fishing nets. The museum is providing key logistical support for the VaquitaCPR team.

In order to make the Gulf safe for the vaquita in the future, experts agree it’s important to prevent illegal fishing of the also-endangered totoaba fish and to support alternative economies for the fishing community.

Copia de equipo de localizacion

VaquitaCPR has been adopted by Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) on the recommendation of their expert advisory group, the Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación De La Vaquita (CIRVA).

YOUR CONTRIBUTION WILL DIRECTLY SUPPORT AN URGENT ATTEMPT TO SAVE THE VAQUITA FROM EXTINCTION.

SHARE THIS:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on google
Google+
Share on reddit
Reddit
Share on pocket
Pocket
Share on email
Email

MORE VAQUITA NEWS:

The Vaquita is not only the world’s smallest cetacean, but also the most endangered marine mammal. Less than 30 vaquitas remain.

With fewer than 15 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in human care no longer considered viable, conservation action is now focused on enforcement and net removal, with enhanced effort during the totoaba spawning season. For current information on the vaquita’s population status and conservation efforts, including necropsy reports, please see the latest CIRVA report.

The Vaquita, the World’s Most Endangered Cetacean

The tiny vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is found only in the shallow waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today. The Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym CIRVA, estimated about 200 vaquitas remaining in 2012. By 2014, CIRVA estimated that about half of them had been killed in gillnets, leaving fewer than 100 individuals. Of these, fewer than 25 were likely to be reproductively mature females. A report prepared by CIRVA in May, 2016 presented an even more dire estimate, finding only 60 vaquitas remaining. This represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997.

Then in 2017, an already desperate situation has worsened. CIRVA issued its eighth report in February, finding that only 30 individual vaquita porpoises remain. Analysis of the 2016 Acoustic Monitoring Program data has shown that almost half of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016. This shocking new report shows that illegal fishing activities, particularly the setting of large-mesh gillnets for totoaba, continue at alarming levels.

The vaquita, which means “little cow” in Spanish, is perilously close to extinction. In response to this, the Mexican government has taken a number of steps to protect them since 2004. They established a Vaquita Refuge in the northern Gulf of California to protect the core range of the vaquita, and initiated a plan of monetary compensation to fishermen who relied on this area to make their living. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto declared an emergency two-year ban on gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita, beginning in May 2015.

Despite these efforts, the latest acoustic survey indicates that the decline in the vaquita population is accelerating. The rapid fall of the population is a direct result of rampant illegal trade in an endangered fish species, the totoaba, which is caught in gillnets that entangle vaquitas. The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a large fish that grows to over six feet long and weighs up to 300 pounds.

The totoaba is in high demand for its swim bladder, a gas-filled internal organ that allows the fish to ascend and descend by controlling its bouyancy. The swim bladder is highly prized as a traditional health food in China and is subject to skyrocketing demand. A single swim bladder can be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. They are dried and smuggled out of Mexico to China, often through the United States.

Gillnets are also the primary fishing method used to catch other fish and shrimp, which are sold both within Mexico and across the border in the U.S. During the shrimping season, about 435 miles of gillnets are set within the vaquita distribution every day, which is about 4.35 miles of gillnet per remaining vaquita. The shrimp in particular is an important export to American markets, which gives American consumers leverage to influence the Mexican government to remove all gillnets immediately.

CIRVA is calling on Mexico and the U.S. to work together to save the vaquita from extinction. If the mortality from fishing nets is not eliminated, the vaquita could vanish from the. The survival of the vaquita is heavily dependent upon implementing significant changes in the gear used by the fisheries within the Gulf of California.

In 2017, VaquitaCPR set out on a courageous path to buy the vanishing vaquita porpoise more time on the planet. With a team of 90 experts from 9 countries, an attempt was made to rescue the remaining vaquitas from extinction and bring them into a temporary sanctuary. Sadly, the rescue plans were suspended because vaquitas reacted poorly to being in a new environment and tragically an adult female died. With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining, the risk was too high to continue rescue operations, but the risk of extinction is also too high to give up, so scientists’ focus now is on protecting the vaquita’s habitat from illegal fishing.

Vaquita Porpoise

CLASSIFICATION: Class Mammalia, Order Cetacea (whales), Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales), Family Phocoenidae (porpoises), scientific name Phocoena sinus

DESCRIPTION: The vaquita is dark gray to light gray to white and is counter-shaded with a dark-gray dorsal and white ventral. It has a distinct dark ring around each eye, dark gray lipstick-like markings and a dark stripe extending from the chin to the flippers. It has a relatively taller and more falcate (curved-back) dorsal fin than other porpoise species.

SIZE: The vaquita is one of the world’s smallest cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) reaching a maximum length of 5 ft. (1.5 m).

RANGE: The vaquita lives only in the upper Gulf of California; it has the most restricted range of any cetacean.

HABITAT: Vaquitas mostly inhabit shallow, murky coastal waters.

DIET: Mostly eat bottom or near-bottom dwelling fishes and squids.

REPRODUCTION: After a 10- to 11-month gestation, the female gives birth to a single calf that nurses for 6 to 8 months. Most calves are born from February to May.

LIFESPAN: Up to 21 or more years.

STATUS: The vaquita is the most critically endangered marine mammal species.

Interesting Facts

  1. Vaquitas were scientifically discovered as a new species in 1958.
  2. The vaquita is also called “vaquita marina” and the Gulf of California harbor porpoise. Vaquita is Spanish for “little cow” and “vaquita marina” is Spanish for “little sea cow.”
  3. The vaquita, like other porpoises, differs from dolphins in several ways. Porpoises lack a beak while dolphins tend to have more prominent beaks. Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth whereas dolphins’ teeth are conical. Porpoises also tend to have triangular dorsal fins, rather than the falcate dorsal fins of most dolphins.
  4. While most porpoises inhabit cold waters, water temperatures in the vaquita’s habitat can exceed 32°C (90°F) in the summer and fall. Its proportionally larger dorsal fin and flippers help a vaquita offload extra body heat in warmer waters.
  5. Vaquitas are polydactylous—they have an extra digit in each flipper.
  6. The vaquita’s entire range is about 4,000 km2—nearly the size of the state of
    Rhode Island.
  7. Vaquitas live about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego.
  8. Vaquitas tend to be solitary. The only stable social groups are made up of mother-calf pairs.
  9. Vaquitas produce series of short, intense, high-frequency clicks for echolocation and possibly communication. They rely on echolocation to navigate and hunt in dark or murky waters where vision is of little use.
  10. The clicks that vaquitas produce probably lie outside the hearing range of their fish and squid prey, allowing the vaquitas to sneak up on their prey.
  11. Scientists use arrays of underwater hydrophones to “listen” for a vaquita’s distinctive clicks. This technique helps scientists obtain more accurate population estimates for the vaquita.