VaquitaCPR: Conservation Program Plan for Critically Endangered Vaquitas in the Upper Gulf of California
Public version of document submitted to Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) on behalf of the Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) (4.26.2017). Originally developed in response to the Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación De La Vaquita (CIRVA) request for an ex situ conservation program plan. Note: This is a living document. It has been updated to reflect program elements in place through 10.1.2017.
PROBLEM: The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Bycatch in gillnets has driven a precipitous decline of the species since it was first described in 1958 (Norris and McFarland 1958). In 1997, the entire population, limited to the Gulf of California, comprised fewer than 600 individuals. By the summer of 2016 only about 30 vaquitas were estimated to remain. The complete elimination of gillnet fishing in the range of the vaquita has been identified as the key element necessary for the survival of the species. As a result, essential regulatory efforts have been undertaken by the Mexican government, including a gillnet and longline ban over the range of the vaquita, and a long-term Vaquita Refuge Area in which all commercial fishing is banned. The continued decline of the vaquita population in spite of these efforts, however, is due in great part to the persistence of illegal gillnetting aimed at catching a large marine fish known as the totoaba, the swim bladders of which fetch large sums of money in Chinese markets. Thus, despite tens of millions of dollars invested by the Mexican government in preventing vaquita bycatch, the population continues to decline. At the current rate of loss, the vaquita will likely decline to extinction in the next few years unless complete elimination of gillnet fishing is achieved and effectively enforced.
NEED: As described in the Report of the 7th meeting of the Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA-7), consideration of the best options for the prevention of vaquita extinction must include exploration of methods such as maintaining vaquitas under managed care within a sanctuary facility until their wild habitat is safe. Transfer of vaquitas from the wild to this temporary sanctuary would remove some members of the population from the threat of gillnets and provide an environment in which breeding could increase the population size prior to release back to the wild once all gill nets have been removed. While such a management and release plan is ambitious, it has proven to be a critical tool in the recovery of numerous species, including some large mammals. As detailed in the CIRVA-7 report, the committee (CIRVA) recommended development of a field protocol and program to evaluate and test the feasibility of locating and catching vaquitas, to include a proposed field team with the required skills and expertise. Further, CIRVA called for a plan to evaluate and test the feasibility of establishing housing facilities for vaquitas in the Upper Gulf of California. At the subsequent CIRVA-8 meeting in November 2016, CIRVA reviewed the draft plan and recommended that conservation efforts involving moving porpoises to a sanctuary begin immediately. The Government of Mexico, through the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), has indicated it will lead these conservation efforts, specifically to locate, catch, house, care for and release vaquitas. The plan detailed in this proposal is in direct response to CIRVA’s recommendation and SEMARNAT’s decision to move forward with conservation efforts to place animals in a sanctuary to help prevent the vaquita’s extinction.
PLAN: The vaquita conservation program plan has been developed with a phased approach. Phase One aims to find and catch vaquitas, followed by medical and behavioral evaluations of their suitability for holding in human care. This evaluation will be carried out while housing the vaquitas in purpose built sea-pens for acclimation to managed care. If Phase One is deemed successful, then Phase Two will be initiated, aiming to house and care for vaquitas within a vaquita sanctuary. Phase Three is dependent on the success of the previous phases and is aimed at long-term housing, care and breeding vaquitas in the sanctuary until complete elimination of gillnets in their natural habitat is accomplished. Phase Four involves reintroducing vaquitas back into a gillnet-free habitat and then actively monitoring them following reintroduction.
Each of these phases has unique challenges, costs and inherent risks, many of which involve procedures that to date have only been attempted on a limited number of individuals of other porpoise species. To address these challenges and mitigate risks, a Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) has been assembled, comprising an international, interdisciplinary team with experts on all aspects of implementation of the plan. The VaquitaCPR conservation strategy is based on the best available science with regard to the vaquita and other porpoise species and takes into consideration the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission’s Guidelines on the Use of Ex situ Management for Species Conservation. Given the current rate of decline, the VaquitaCPR conservation program described here is now considered to be a critical element in the fight to prevent the vaquita’s extinction, buying time while the necessary complete removal of gillnets from the vaquita’s range is accomplished.
Current plans call for initial implementation of Phase One with an effort to catch vaquitas in October 2017. The success of this initial season of catch effort, and the continued existence of free-ranging vaquitas, will dictate whether a second catch effort is needed. Any subsequent effort will be scheduled according to seasonal conditions in the Upper Gulf of California, guided by the protocols defined here for Phase One as modified on the basis of experience from the first field effort, and subject to the availability of financial, personnel and logistical resources. Housing and Care elements as defined here for Phases One, Two and Three, and as adapted through experience, will be applicable, to subsequent efforts.
PROJECT MANAGEMENT & DECISION MAKING
The Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) has been assembled to address the challenges and mitigate the risks of implementing this stepwise approach to the conservation program plan. VaquitaCPR’s Management team is listed on p.24. Management Team Leads will oversee implementation of the plan (pending approval, adequate funding, and necessary permitting) and will report progress to CIRVA and SEMARNAT on a regular basis. To ensure that the Management Team has timely access to subject matter experts during the development and implementation of the plan, an Expert Advisory Group (EAG) has been established and consulted during the development of this plan. Members of the EAG are available, either as a group or as individuals, on an as needed basis.
Key decision points have been strategically built into each of the four phases of the plan, to ensure that the plan is frequently evaluated, realigned as needed, paused when appropriate, and aborted if deemed necessary. An Independent Review Panel (IRP) has been established to provide independent review of the proposed plan prior to implementation and to make recommendations to the Management Team for revisions to the program plan. Once the plan is in action, the IRP will be consulted to evaluate results including factors affecting survivorship of vaquitas impacted by the plan, and animal injuries, illnesses, or deaths, if any should occur as a result of project activities. In the case of animal injury or mortality the IRP will be responsible for review of the circumstances surrounding the event as well as the overall project progress to date. The IRP will then make a recommendation to the Management Team Leads as to whether or not the project should proceed with or without modification, or be terminated. These reviews will be provided to SEMARNAT and CIRVA.
The protocols and procedures described in this program plan are based on current knowledge, relevant experience, and recent expert discussions related to the program scope. Important to note is that an adaptive management approach will be utilized; therefore, we expect these protocols to undergo further revision and refinement as new data and expert guidance are acquired. Prior to execution of each objective, the Management Team Leads will assemble, either in person or remotely, key personnel to finalize the methodologies based on the most current information on hand. Additional subject matter experts, to include members of the EAG, IRP, and CIRVA, will be consulted as needed.
A budget plan has been developed and funding largely secured for Phase One and Phase Two. Phase Three and Phase Four financial planning has been initiated but is unlikely to be completed until conclusion of Phases One and Two.
PROPOSED CONSERVATION PLAN
1.0 PHASE ONE: Locating, Catching, Initial Housing, & Animal Care
Phase One involves locating, catching, and temporarily holding vaquitas to assess their response to handling and human care. The primary objectives for Phase One are detailed below.
Primary Objective: Find vaquitas using complementary approaches, including acoustic arrays, vessel-based observers, and trained dolphins from the United States Navy Marine Mammal Program, and guide the catch team to the vaquitas.
1.1.1 General Detection
Vaquitas are difficult to detect. Knowledge about where vaquitas spend their time has improved. Their consistent use of underwater ridges within or near the vaquita refuge has been confirmed in analysis of data from three sighting surveys and thousands of days of acoustic data. As a result, the recent 2015 vessel-based survey and subsequent boat forays into the vaquita’s range found vaquitas in the same locations on several occasions. The October 2017 capture attempt will follow the full summer acoustic monitoring period and passive acoustics will be used throughout the capture period to maximize locating vaquitas (details below). Experience with the vaquita abundance survey showed that, despite previous difficulties in finding vaquitas, there are core areas of their range where they can be sighted fairly reliably on different days from large and medium-sized boats. However, this ability is extremely dependent on sea-state. Additionally, the ability to track animals remains highly variable. Most porpoises are sighted briefly and never re-sighted even with multiple experts searching with high-power binoculars (25x). Vaquitas are known to avoid vessel noise and react to vessels changing speed. Thus, in addition to difficulties tracking animals they are likely to behave evasively to active approaches. In order to increase the likelihood of success in tracking vaquitas, two detection techniques will be used: 1) vessel-based observers on 3 spatially separated vessels and 2) trained U.S. Navy dolphins.
1.1.2 Vessel-Based Observers
Vessels carrying trained porpoise spotters with high-powered binoculars will lead the search for vaquitas. Three primary visual search vessels, the largest “mothership” and two sport fishing boats with towers, will survey the area most recently indicated as having vaquitas present, based on acoustic data. In search mode, the vessels will move abreast to minimize vaquita disturbance. The mothership will be equipped with 2 pairs of “Bigeye” binoculars, while the smaller vessels will have smaller binoculars mounted on supports. In tracking mode, the visual vessels will form a triangle, with the two smaller vessels in the lead. Use of 3 vessels maximizes the chance of at least one vessel viewing the vaquitas broadside when dorsal fins are most visible. The two net deployment vessels will extend the search path to each side, separated from the sport boats by 300 m. The porpoise retrieval vessel will station to one side or the other separated from the outside boat by ~200 m. The 6 vessels will move forward in a shallow V-shaped search formation, at about 3 kts. Under good conditions, it should be possible to detect vaquitas visually at a distance of about 1-2 km. The plan for distribution of spotting vessels is flexible, and may change in the face of field realities, for example, with the smaller spotting vessels searching other locations concurrently if we have difficulties finding porpoises.
Once one or more porpoises have been sighted, the challenge will be to keep track of them and position the capture vessels appropriately. The primary visual search vessels will try to remain in visual contact, but will need to remain at least 500 m away. The presence of these larger vessels may provide an acoustic barrier of sorts, which is intended to encourage the porpoises to move in a more predictable direction (away from the boat noise).
1.1.3 Passive Acoustics
After six years of passive acoustic monitoring of the vaquita population inside its refuge, it has been determined that there are three areas with higher acoustic activity. These correlate with areas of high visual sighting densities apparent in all three surveys over the past 21 years. Acoustic detectors will be deployed in all three areas, strategically located to cover the span of the areas. Data will be analyzed daily, if weather allows retrieval and redeployment of detectors. The acoustic data will inform field operations to optimize searching activities.
1.1.4 Trained US Navy Dolphins
The U.S. Navy is providing vaquita detection capabilities at the request of the Mexican Navy. This is a parallel but separate effort to VaquitaCPR, being coordinated by the U.S. Navy and Mexican Navy. In summary, U.S. Navy dolphins will provide shorter range tracking of vaquitas. During the initial visual search process, the Navy dolphin-tending vessel will remain at a distance where it can bring the search dolphin to the sighting area within minutes. Once a porpoise is sighted, the tender will be called into the vicinity. The dolphin will be deployed to locate and keep track of the porpoise to help the capture boats position themselves correctly, but is not intended to approach or interact with the porpoise.
Primary Objective: Safely catch up to two vaquitas at a time, using technology and procedures developed for harbor porpoises and relying on the detection team to find animals.
Safe catching of vaquitas will rely on the use of technology and procedures developed for other porpoises. A general description of the capture protocol is provided below. Protocol refinement will be guided by comprehensive discussion with key personnel and additional subject matter experts. If at any time the project team leads and appropriate key personnel deem resources to be insufficient or the behavior of the animals to be incompatible with safe capture, the IRP will be consulted to determine if the plan should be realigned, temporarily halted, or aborted. Further, if the protocol described proves unsuccessful for catching vaquitas, then other methods will be explored and evaluated.
1.2.1 Net Deployment
We will work with Danish harbor porpoise capture experts (who catch porpoises for satellite tagging and release) to use their proven gillnet approach to try to catch vaquitas. The catch team will operate from three 7-8 m long Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs). Two of these will be equipped with specially designed chutes for deploying the gillnets. These netboats will work to encircle individuals or pairs of vaquitas. The third, the porpoise retrieval boat, will be the primary response vessel when a porpoise becomes caught in the net. When the netboats are ready to make a set, the porpoise retrieval boat will be withdrawn and the two netboats will move into position. Each netboat is equipped with two 7-m- deep gillnets with surface float lines. At the command of the crew on the net boats the netboats will deploy their nets at high speed, with the nets deploying past the outboard engine through the chute. The lead netboat will set its net around the animals in a circle or whatever pattern seems best at the time to place the net in front of the animals. The other boat may follow the first boat and set its net on the outside of them other net, or start from the end of the net deployed by the first. Once the nets are deployed, all three boats will closely watch the net for porpoise entanglements.
1.2.2 Detection and Removal from Net
As soon as the nets are deployed, the porpoise retrieval boat will approach from ~500 m away, but not go up to the net until a porpoise is entangled. The crews of all boats will scan the float lines for signs of entanglement by a porpoise (deflection or dipping of float lines below the surface). The retrieval team will be prepared for multiple porpoises to be caught in the same set, and the netboats will be ready to remove additional animals and bring them to the primary porpoise retrieval boat or the mothership. Porpoises will be disentangled by trained personnel working over the side of the boat (no personnel will go into the water due to safety concerns about entanglement in the net). Once the porpoises are restrained, out of the nets, and lifted aboard the vessel, the nets will be retrieved by the netboats.
1.2.3 Initial Veterinary Assessment
Once an animal is caught, and while the catch team is disentangling the animal from the net, the onboard veterinarian will make a visual assessment, taking note of respiratory rate, heart rate, behavioral responses, sex, age class, external injuries, and if female, determination of whether the animal is pregnant. The veterinarian will have medical supplies and equipment to intervene if an emergency should arise during capture.
1.2.4 Transport from Net to Mothership
The catch team crew will transport porpoises in water in a purpose-built transport carrier on the porpoise retrieval vessel (or on deck with foam pads on the netboats until they can be transferred to the porpoise retrieval vessel). Tandem transport of multiple animals will be done whenever possible in an attempt to keep animals communicating and in close proximity to each other. The porpoises will be closely monitored by the veterinary team. Sedation may be administered prior to departure from the capture site to aid in safe transport of the animal at the discretion of the attending veterinarian. If the sea-pen is not quickly accessible, the porpoise will be quickly transported to the mothership where a small pool or pen will be available for rapid water access and to aid in animal acclimation if needed. Satellite-linked tags will be attached to the vaquitas if they must be released before reaching the mothership or sea-pen.
If time allows, a satellite-linked tag will be attached by means of a single delrin pin to the dorsal fin as soon as it is determined that a vaquita must be released. This location-only tag will be tested for proper transmissions prior to attachment, and again once it is fastened to the fin. Tag attachment can be accomplished in less than 5 minutes.
1.2.6 Transfer to Initial Housing
Porpoises will be transferred by means of slings from purpose-built transport containers to the mothership, and then either transferred to a pool on-deck of the mothership for further evaluation, or into a shallow sea-pen housing option.
1.2.7 Minimizing Risks from Capture
- Capture operations will only occur under optimal sea state conditions, when movement of the floats on the capture net indicative of a capture will be able to be readily detected.
- The nets will only be deployed when we are as certain as possible that there are no more than 2 vaquitas in the area that could possibly be caught.
- The capture team is composed of international experts knowledgeable in the biology and behavior of vaquitas, and/or in the safe and effective capture and handling of porpoises and dolphins, including personnel from Mexico, the United States, Canada, and Denmark.
- Experienced marine mammal veterinarians will be on the porpoise retrieval vessel and each of the 2 net-boats. Each veterinarian will be equipped with an emergency response medical kit, with additional emergency equipment available on the mothership.
- The deployment of the nets will be orchestrated by a team of Danish harbor porpoise researchers who have amassed perhaps the greatest experience with porpoise capturing in the world. We will use their proven techniques and equipment, recognizing that differences between the species may require adapting approaches.
- The nets will be retrieved immediately upon catching vaquitas to make sure nothing else is accidentally caught while we are working
with the vaquitas.
- While we will use expert personnel, best practices, and we will base decisions on decades of experience, there are no guarantees
with regards to how vaquitas will respond to capture and handling.
- If a vaquita does not respond well to the process, it will be returned to the water at the discretion of the veterinarians. If time allows, it will be tagged before release.
1.3 Initial Housing
- Primary Objective: Design and build sea-pen housing to temporarily (8 weeks) accommodate captured porpoises. Test the pens to determine accessibility, functionality, and resistance of facilities to weather and tides in the area, prior to housing animals.
- Secondary Objective: Temporarily house and care for vaquitas in a shallow sea-pen within the vaquita refuge to allow for initial assessment. If animals are deemed suitable for holding, begin acclimation to human care and feeding. When animals begin eating on their own, transfer to a deeper sea-pen and begin preparations for transport to the sanctuary facility.
- Tertiary Objective: When land-based pools are available, animals may be transferred to the land-based pool facility for housing while a sea-pen sanctuary is constructed (see Phase Two), during adverse weather, or if intensive medical care is needed.
These objectives will only be implemented if key decision points are adequately addressed, per the project team leads and appropriate key personnel. If at any time, resources are deemed insufficient or animal behavior deemed unacceptable, the expert advisory group will be consulted to determine if the plan should be realigned, temporarily halted, or aborted.
The design and construction of the sea-pen housing for vaquitas is based on expertise in porpoise care and small cetacean sea-pen enclosures. During Phase One, vaquita(s) will live in an initial, sea-pen housing enclosure close to the vaquita refuge. The intent of the initial housing facility will be to facilitate comprehensive assessment of the vaquitas’ response to holding, human observation, and when needed, handling and medical care. Housing close to the refuge will reduce transport times from the catch site to the housing site, as well as allow the animal care team to release vaquitas immediately back into the wild in the event that an animal is showing evidence of excessive stress. Land-based pools will be available for housing at any time following successful acclimation to human care, as well as in the event that adverse weather necessitates evacuation of sea-pens. Under adverse weather conditions, and assuming animals are deemed stable enough for transport, vaquitas will be moved by boat to the land-based pools in San Felipe. If land-based pools are not accessible for any reason, vaquitas will be released back into the refuge. If a vaquita is determined to be unstable and is not adapting to the sea pen environment, a satellite-linked tag will be attached to the animal’s dorsal fin prior to release to allow for post-release monitoring, as previously described. Plans for initial sea-pen housing, land-based pool housing, and emergency evacuation options are described below.
1.3.1 In-Refuge, Sea-Pen Housing
Design & Build Sea-Pen Enclosures
Based on consultation with sea-pen facilities experts, a design for initial, in-refuge, sea-pen housing has been developed. The design consists of 2 sea-pen netted enclosures, within a larger circular net enclosure, with floating platforms to facilitate animal care and handling.
The facility will be anchored to the sea floor. One pen will be approximately 4ft deep to allow the animal care team, when necessary, to safely enter the water to evaluate animals, feed animals, and/or provide timely assistance. Another sea-pen will be deeper to be utilized once animals are consistently eating on their own. The sea-pen netting has been specified to mitigate the risk of entanglement. Acuario Oceanico, a privately owned sea-pen facility usually based off the coast of Ensenada, Mexico has been made available for this purpose. Engineering modifications have been made to provide a vaquita-safe housing option. The facility provides fish storage and preparation, animal care facilities, underwater viewing, water and power, personnel housing, isolation from the public, and natural seawater exposure.
Test Sea-Pen Enclosures
The sea-pen enclosures will be installed in the vaquita refuge to evaluate their performance in the swift current and extreme tides, as well as high winds, changing sea states, and variable weather patterns. The facility will be continuously monitored and evaluated by experts for durability, ease of use, and personnel safety and modifications made as necessary. Suitability of this housing option for vaquitas will be continually evaluated by key personnel in collaboration with the Management Team.
Temporarily House Vaquitas in Sea-Pen Enclosures
Assuming the successful catching and transporting of vaquitas to the anchored sea-pens, animals will then be placed into the sea-pens for evaluation and acclimation to human care. Detailed animal care protocols and decision trees have been developed and reviewed by appropriate EAG members. The design of the sea-pens includes limited frozen fish storage, fish preparation areas, animal care facilities, and staff housing and there is adequate vessel support to transfer staff and supplies. If at any time an animal is showing evidence of excessive stress due to housing, a satellite-linked tag will be attached to the animal’s dorsal fin, as previously described, and the animal will be released back to the wild. Satellite telemetry will allow for post-release monitoring.
Inclement Weather Plan
Once animals have been acclimated to human care, they may be maintained in the sea pens or transferred to the land-based pools while a longer-term sea-pen sanctuary is being constructed. Additionally, if inclement weather threatens the area and the sea-pens are considered unsafe for housing vaquitas, vaquitas will be transported to land-based pools in San Felipe.
1.3.2 Land-Based Pools
An area appropriate for above-ground pools and adequate sea water filtration has been acquired and developed to support initial and long term vaquita housing. A semi-permanent hurricane/monsoon-proof building equipped with environmental controls has been constructed to house three soft-sided above-ground pools and provide a safe haven for animals during adverse weather. Pools are padded to mitigate the animals’ exposure to unnecessary noise. Both open-circuit and closed-circuit filtration options are available, including water filtration, chillers, and heaters. Seawater comes from a seawater well on site. An emergency generator will power the life support system in the event of local power system failure. Air handling includes HEPA air filtration, cooling, and heating.
1.3.3 Emergency Evacuation Options
Additional emergency evacuation sites will be identified in case vaquitas need to be moved out of the area (e.g. approaching hurricane). Both Mexican and US marine mammal facilities will be evaluated for emergency animal holding.
1.4 Animal Care
- Primary Objective: Ensure survival of vaquitas during catching and initial housing.
- Secondary Objective: Develop an animal care and preventive medicine program by establishing daily feed intake needs, the acclimation process to a confined sea-pen and land-based holding space, and the normal values for biomedical parameters.
- Tertiary Objective: Salvage gametes and stem cells from any animal should a death occur.
Personnel experienced in caring for porpoises will be engaged for on-site animal care for the vaquitas, to include veterinary, behavioral, and animal care experts. A comprehensive animal care plan has been modeled after the animal care programs developed for harbor porpoises in the Netherlands and finless porpoises in Japan, as well as the NMMF’s medical care program for cetaceans which provides for acclimation, preventive, routine, and emergency animal care. All activities involving the porpoises will be executed in compliance with Mexican laws and regulations.
After a porpoise is caught and before a decision is made to bring the porpoise to the sea-pens, a series of assessments will be undertaken at key stages during the process. If at any stage a decision is made to release the animal, the porpoise will be tagged and released using a predetermined (and previously mentioned) tagging protocol. Once animals are under human care, animal care staff will observe and monitor their behavior 24 hours/day. Record keeping will be implemented immediately in all areas of animal care, to include but not limited to, behavioral and physiological response to the catching and transport process, vital signs, feeding, medical care, and social behavior.
1.4.1 Initial Animal Assessment
Once an animal is obtained, and while the catch team is disentangling the animal from the net, the onboard veterinarian will make a visual assessment, taking note of respiratory rate, heart rate, behavioral responses, sex, age class, external injuries, and if female, determination of whether the animal is pregnant. The veterinarian will have supplies to intervene if an emergency should arise during capture.
The catch team crew will have means to transport the porpoise in water in a transport carrier or on deck with foam mattresses if needed. Tandem transport of multiple animals will be done whenever possible in an attempt to keep animals communicating and in close proximity to each other.
1.4.2 Comprehensive Examination
Upon arrival at the mothership or sea-pen (initial housing facility), the decision will be made to either release the porpoise immediately to the sea-pen, or to collect health data prior to release into the sea-pen. If the porpoise is calm and not demonstrating signs of distress, a detailed examination will be made by the attending veterinarian in concert with the animal care team. The exam will be aborted if the animal is deemed unstable at any point. Any additional sampling will be done at later physical exams once animal acclimation and stability has improved.
1.4.3 Initial Sea-Pen Release
Initial release of the porpoise will be to the shallow sea-pen, for effective handling as needed for assisted feeding and animal care. A small team will be tasked to guide the porpoise around the perimeter of the pen, supporting the weight of the porpoise on an open-cell foam mat. The porpoise will be assisted until it demonstrates it can support itself and swim in an upright position. If only one porpoise is caught in the ‘set’ and transported to the sea-pen, efforts to catch the next porpoise will be made within 24hrs in order to provide a companion at the soonest opportunity. Once there is more than one animal in the sea-pens, every effort will be made to keep the animals together, as long as they show evidence of compatibility.
Live fish, including totoaba fingerlings and other local species, will be offered initially to encourage voluntary feeding. Assisted feeding will be attempted within 6 – 8 hours of introduction to the sea-pen, but only during daylight hours. If required, the porpoises will be restrained for feeding by reducing the swimming area within the pen for handling. If more than one porpoise is in the pen, all porpoises will be held for feeding simultaneously. The porpoises will also be released from restraint at the same time. Assisted feeding will be undertaken as needed during daylight hours, and extended into the evening if daily caloric needs have not been met. The caloric value of the prey fish to be used for feeding the vaquitas will be determined prior to the captures. Body weight will be obtained using a stretcher and a hanging digital scale as deemed appropriate, until the porpoises are eating freely and entirely on their own. The porpoises will be moved to the deeper sea-pen once they are consistently eating.
1.4.5 Frozen Fish Acquisition and Handling
In addition to providing live fish to encourage voluntary feeding, freshly caught dead prey species will initially be offered to the porpoises before passive restraint and assisted feeding by hand is undertaken. Frozen stock of local species will be procured and tested at least one month prior to catching animals. This fish will be integrated into the animals’ diet as their feeding behavior improves and becomes voluntary. Quality testing will be conducted routinely according to standard cetacean facility protocols and all fish will be kept and handled following pre-determined hygiene and processing guidelines.
1.4.6 Emergency Response and Release
Emergency medical equipment will be available at all times to the attending veterinarian. At any time during the above process if an animal is deemed unstable and unlikely to be a candidate for transfer to the sanctuary, the animal would be released immediately, ideally into the same area it was caught following the transport guidelines listed below.
1.4.7 Pre-transport Assessment
If the animals need to be transported out of the refuge and/or out of the sanctuary for any reason, including weather evacuation, a pre-transport health assessment will be undertaken to ensure the highest quality of care possible and, if needed for compliance with export/import regulations. If the animal is deemed unfit for transport, then it may be released back into the wild following tagging with a satellite-linked transmitter.
Animal transport could involve several stages, including sea-pen to land-based pools; land-based pools to evacuation route; road and/or air transport. Regardless of the reason or mode of transport, animals will be transported in pairs whenever possible, and administration of sedation will be performed at the discretion of the attending veterinarian. Throughout the transport, animals will have an experienced veterinarian tending to them at all times, as well as at least one equally experienced animal care specialist. These personnel will provide continuous monitoring and care throughout the transport. Emergency equipment will accompany the animal(s) and the animal care team at all times.
- Vessel-Based Transport via Transport Carrier
For vessel-based transport via transport carriers, porpoises will be secured in transport slings, placed in transport carriers and positioned onto a transport vessel. When transporting animals from sea to land and the transport vessel either docks at the pier or lands at the beach, the porpoises will be lifted in the slings from the collapsible transport containers and placed into transporter containers designed for road and air transport.
- Vessel-Based Transport via Mat
When animals are deemed stable enough for rapid vessel-based transport, the attending veterinarian may determine that placing the animal on a foam mattress on the boat deck is all that is required. Animals will be kept continuously wet throughout the transport process.
- Truck Transport
Rigid animal transport containers would be securely positioned on an enclosed transport vehicle, intended for transferring animals to an alternate. Porpoises would be transferred from either vessel-based carriers or pools by utilizing transport slings and moving them by hand to the rigid transport containers.
- Air Transport
Rigid animal transport containers will be placed and secured onto aircraft, following best practices for cetacean transport. Cabin pressure and temperature will be appropriately maintained. Animals will be kept neutrally buoyant and continuously wet during the transport, attended at all times by veterinary and animal care personnel. Emergency medical equipment will always accompany the animal(s).
1.4.9 Gamete Rescue
In the event that a fresh-dead carcass is recovered (unrelated to this plan) or an animal dies (directly related to plan), immediate efforts will be undertaken to attempt to cryopreserve the animal’s genetic material according to procedures established for other cetacean species.
2.0 PHASE TWO: Sanctuary Housing & Care
If animals successfully acclimate to human care and handling, they will progress to Phase Two, which involves holding of vaquitas in the sanctuary. The sanctuary is proposed to be located in the Upper Gulf of California. Information gained during initial housing will provide baseline information for each vaquita, species knowledge, and acclimation of the animals to ensure their survivorship and successful acclimation to the sanctuary. Phase Two objectives are detailed below.
- Primary Objective: Identify the optimal sanctuary housing location in order to house and care for vaquitas in the Upper Gulf of California.
- Secondary Objective: Collect baseline data and species familiarity, increasing the chances for successful long term care and breeding.
2.1 Sanctuary Facility Options
Initially, two options were considered for Phase Two sanctuary facilities. These are detailed below. The current plans call for use of the floating sea-pen facility with the option of a shore-based, sea pen facility to be explored as a longer-term option.
2.1.1 Shore-Based, Sea-Pen Facility in San Felipe
A shore-based, sea-pen facility will be designed, built, and tested off the coast of San Felipe, using the expertise of experienced sea-pen operators, porpoise care personnel, and marine mammal facilities engineers. Criteria for site selection include: a safe and quiet environment; sufficient water depth at all tides, acceptable water quality; protection from severe weather; easy access for veterinary observation and care; near-by facilities for fish storage and preparation; security potential relative to human interference, and potential for observation by the public for the purpose of conservation education and outreach, as deemed appropriate by the Mexican government. Appropriate permissions will be sought for any planned development, construction, and/or modifications.
Preliminary site surveys have determined that an ideal location for the sea-pen sanctuary may be a small and protected cove, located just north of downtown San Felipe at the base of Cerro el Machorro where local fishermen seek shelter year round from heavy winds.
Once the sanctuary facility is built, expert sea-pen operators and divers will inspect the facility and ensure suitability and safety for housing porpoises, to include any areas that allow for behavioral observation and/or hands-on assessment. The facility will then be closely monitored for durability during changing weather conditions and fluctuating tides, ease of use, personnel safety, animal safety, and security. As similarly determined with the initial, sea-pen housing option, suitability of the shore-based sea-pen facility will be assessed by key personnel in collaboration with the Management Team and EAG. If deemed suitable, the shore-based facility will be equipped and manned to accept vaquitas as soon as possible.
In the case of severe weather, land-based pools would be needed to avoid premature release of vaquitas back to the wild. The same land-based pool facility as previously described would be suitable.
2.1.2 Floating Sea-Pen Facility (Baja Aqua Farms)
The floating sea-pen facility being adapted for use as an initial holding option (and described above) will be used for Phase Two holding option using the expertise of experienced sea-pen operators, porpoise care personnel, and marine mammal facilities engineers. As with the shore-based sea-pen facility, criteria for site selection include: a safe and quiet environment; sufficient water depth at all tides; acceptable water quality; protection from severe weather; easy access for veterinary observation and care; near-by facilities for fish storage and preparation; security potential relative to human interference; and potential for observation by the public for the purpose of conservation education and outreach, as deemed appropriate by the Mexican government. As specified above, the floating sea-pen currently provides many of these elements. If proven to be successful for housing vaquitas, the floating sea-pen could provide some or all Phase Two housing within the vaquita’s range, with rapid release back to the wild as an option at any time. In case of severe weather, land-based pools would be needed to avoid premature release of vaquitas back to the wild. The same land-based pool facility as previously described would be suitable.
2.2 Animal Care
The provisional housing animal care plan will assure a positive state of animal welfare and incorporate all facets of responsible conservation medicine. A complete provisional housing animal care plan will be produced by the animal care team and implemented by experienced animal care professionals at the host facility.
3.0 PHASE THREE: Long Term Sanctuary Housing
Phase Three is dependent on the success of the previous phases and is aimed at housing and caring for vaquitas in a sanctuary facility until complete elimination of gillnets in their natural habitat is accomplished. Phase Three objectives are detailed below, and include the primary objective, key decision points, and key personnel.
- Primary Objective: Maintain vaquitas under managed care within sanctuary and establish breeding program while reinforcing natural foraging behavior.
- Secondary Objective: Ensure sanctuary animal safety through the implementation of a stringent management program performed by experienced personnel.
- Tertiary Objective: In conjunction with the desires of the Mexican government, provide public conservation education and outreach programs.
- Quaternary Objective: Once vaquitas are reintroduced to the wild following removal of all gillnets, transition of the sanctuary facilities to a long-term rescue, rehabilitation and education center.
If Phases One and Two are successful, a long-term sanctuary may be needed to allow for protection of vaquitas and adequate space for breeding while gillnets are completely eliminated from their range. The shore-based sanctuary described in Section 2.1.1 could serve as the foundation for a long-term sanctuary, particularly if the initial engineering and design are capable of withstanding the extreme tides and storm activities in the Gulf of California. Longer-term use of the Sea-Pen Facility could also be considered as part of the longer-term Phase Three sanctuary housing. If the shore-based sanctuary is not deemed suitable for long-term care for vaquitas, and extended care and protection with the option to breed is deemed necessary, then a new long-term sanctuary plan will be designed and built at a selected site. The long-term sanctuary planning will incorporate the expertise of experienced sea-pen operators, porpoise care personnel, and marine mammal facilities engineers.
Criteria for site selection are similar to those used for the shore-based, provisional sanctuary site and include the following: a safe and quiet environment; acceptable water quality; protection from severe weather; easy access for veterinary observation and care; adjacent facilities for fish storage and preparation; and potential for observation by the public for the purpose of conservation education and outreach, as deemed appropriate by the Mexican government. Appropriate permissions will be sought for any planned development, construction, and/or modifications. The safety and suitability of the sanctuary will be tested in the same method as described for the shore-based, sea-pen provisional housing facility.
Sanctuary housing is intended to accommodate the period required to achieve objectives of the conservation program, which includes providing a safe haven for vaquitas until the vaquita refuge is cleared of gillnets. Once vaquitas are reintroduced to the Gulf of California, the facility could be used to establish a rescue and rehabilitation center for marine mammals.
4.0 PHASE FOUR: Reintroduction to the Gulf of California
Phase Four involves reintroducing vaquitas back into a gillnet-free habitat, followed by active monitoring after reintroduction.
Primary Objective: Successful reintroduction of vaquitas into a safe, gillnet-free habitat. Secondary Objective: Monitor vaquitas following release in order to ensure their survival and repopulation.
4.1 Reintroduction Criteria
Activating Phase Four would include the following decision criteria before the final management plan would become operational. Overall, release of vaquitas will be predicated on meeting more detailed criteria developed by CIRVA that indicate the wild habitat can be deemed safe. The following are among some of the elements that will need to be considered from the perspective of animal care and health.
- The original causes of threat should be eliminated or ameliorated.
- The sanctuary population should have sufficient numbers and genetic diversity to continue the sanctuary reproduction program in case all of the released animals perish.
- Individual vaquitas selected to form a cohort for release will receive stringent health assessments and quarantine before they are selected for release.
- Individuals with illnesses, injuries, infirmities or behavioral abnormalities that would impair their chances of survival should not be selected for release.
- Vaquitas selected for release should have essential survival skills, including but not limited to prey recognition, foraging, predator avoidance, shelter-seeking, and migratory traditions.
- Vaquitas born during the sanctuary phase of the program should be reared to mitigate excessive dependency on non-live food. This may require housing with other porpoises with established experience with capturing live prey to facilitate social learning.
Initiation of this phase would be contingent on the Mexican Government adopting a recommendation from CIRVA to proceed with the release program, after review of the final plan.
4.2 Release Candidate Assessment
The following tests help to inform the selection process for the first cohort of vaquitas to be released, ensuring they are physically fit and socially compatible with established relationships.
- A thorough health assessment of the vaquitas will identify potential candidates for release, ensuring the selected vaquitas meet health requirements for permit approvals and to mitigate the potential for transmitting a pathogen to the wild population, or other cetacean species.
- Determination of the social relationships among porpoises guide the selection process for the first group of vaquitas to be released, ensuring that they are socially compatible with established relationships.
Release of the vaquitas from the sanctuary to open water within the refuge will be undertaken in two stages. While details of such release will be determined from experience with the animals themselves, the following provides some conceptual framework for designing Phase Four activities.
The first stage involves providing access for the vaquitas to swim in and out of the sea pen sanctuary, returning at any time. The vaquitas would have access to the perimeter area defined by an outer enclosure. Live prey would continue to be introduced to the sea pen and outer (enclosure) perimeter, ensuring there is more than sufficient prey fish available for the vaquitas to forage. Throughout this initial period (allowing up to 6 months), the vaquitas will be observed and a visual assessment of their condition made in conjunction with the data being collected from the tags for approximately six weeks post release. Post-release monitoring is outlined in the subsequent section. The goal of the assessment is to determine whether the vaquitas are socializing, foraging and consuming enough fish.
The second stage of the release involves removing the outer-perimeter and continuing to monitor the vaquitas from visual and remote tracking of the satellite-linked tags. Access to the sea pen will continue to be provided for at least six weeks, in the event a vaquita was to return to the sea pen. Subject to the results of the first release program determined from post-release monitoring, additional release of cohorts would continue as often as needed.
In the event of mortality, all release activities would be suspended while data are reviewed by the IRP. In the event of an animal welfare concern after reintroduction, intervention may be necessary to ensure the animal’s survival.
4.4 Post-Release Monitoring
Each of the porpoises captured and held at the facility will be marked and tagged using well-tested techniques to facilitate post-release monitoring. DNA samples will be collected from the animals to provide a second means of confirming identification should the animals be recovered. Satellite-linked time-depth recording tags will be attached to each vaquita to provide behavioral information, including ranging patterns, dive durations, dive depths, time at depth, and time at the surface.
Post-release monitoring will consist of daily remote tracking of the satellite-linked tags and attempts to relocate tagged individuals in the field to assess condition. Direct observations will allow for assessment of condition of the animal (and the tag), its behavior, and fine-scale information on position with respect to other vaquitas, and potential threats.
Research on post-release monitoring of stranded/rescued cetaceans has shown that six weeks is a reasonable threshold for defining successful re-adaptation to life in the wild. This criterion will be applied to guide monitoring efforts of the released vaquitas. Efforts to find and observe the tagged individuals will occur as often as is feasible within the first six weeks, depending on weather and logistical constraints. Individuals exhibiting unexpected behavioral patterns (as determined from tags or direct observations) or poor condition (from direct observation) will receive increased monitoring attention, and may be considered for re-capture, pending input from the IRP. Beyond six weeks, monitoring will be accomplished primarily via remote tracking.
CONSORTIUM MANAGEMENT TEAM
Role: The Consortium Management Team, serving as CIRVA’s Steering Group for Ex Situ Conservation, developed the proposed plan with input from subject matter experts. Program Directors will oversee implementation of the plan, pending approval, adequate funding, and necessary permitting. Senior Advisors will provide essential knowledge for the proper execution of the plan. Program Managers will assist with execution of the program plan. Project Managers will lead specific efforts under the program plan.
Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, PhD
Coordinación de Investigación y de Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos, Instituto Nacional de Ecología, INECC, Mexico
Delegado Federal, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), Mexico
Program Senior Advisors:
Peter Thomas, PhD
International & Policy Program Director, Marine Mammal Commission, USA
Sam Ridgway, DVM, PhD
President, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
General Program Manager:
Cynthia Smith, DVM
Executive Director, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
Deputy Program Managers:
Field Operations & Logistics Manager, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
Executive Operations, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
Randall Wells, PhD
Director, Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, Chicago Zoological Society, USA
Animal Care Advisor, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
Frances Gulland, Vet MB, PhD
Senior Scientist, The Marine Mammal Center, USA
Animal Care Expert, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
Forrest Gomez, DVM
Deputy Director of Medicine, National Marine Mammal Foundation, USA
Armando Jaramillo, PhD
Coordinación de Investigación y de Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos, Instituto Nacional de Ecología, INECC, Mexico
San Felipe Site Manager, National Marine Mammal Foundation
Barbara Taylor, PhD
Leader, Marine Mammal Genetics Group, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, USA