VaquitaCPR Field Operations Update

VaquitaCPR Field Operations Update

SAN FELIPE, BAJA, MEXICO —  The entire VaquitaCPR team is deeply saddened to report that during field operations to rescue the world’s most critically endangered marine mammal, a vaquita porpoise has died. With less than 30 vaquitas left on Earth, the entire rescue team is heartbroken by this devastating loss.

Extreme precautions and significant planning have gone into every aspect of the VaquitaCPR rescue plan. VaquitaCPR assembled many of the most experienced marine mammal experts in the world to determine if human care could rescue them from extinction. No conservation project like this has ever been done before, and the operation comes with significant risk. However, scientists agreed that the risk of extinction in the wild was still far greater than the risk of rescue efforts.

A mature female vaquita, not pregnant or lactating, had been caught and transported successfully late in the afternoon on Saturday in the Northern Gulf of California and was taken to a specially-modified floating sea pen known as ElNido, or The Nest. From the moment of capture, the vaquita was under constant care and observation for its health and safety. Marine mammal veterinarians monitoring the vaquita’s health noticed the animal’s condition began to deteriorate and made the determination to release. The release attempt was unsuccessful and life saving measures were administered.  Despite the heroic efforts of the veterinary team, the vaquita did not survive.

Every member of the international rescue team is a leading expert in their field and deeply committed to saving the vaquita from imminent extinction. The rescue operation was considered a great hope for the continued existence of this rare and elusive porpoise which is at severe risk of extinction due to entanglement and drowning in gillnets in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Hundreds of vaquitas have been lost since 1997 despite significant efforts by the Mexican government to ban gillnet fishing throughout the vaquitas’ range and establish strong enforcement of conservation measures. Illegal gillnet fishing continues.

With so few vaquitas left, this consortium of international conservation and animal care experts was assembled at the request of the Mexican government and scientific community to develop an unprecedented rescue and relocation operation that is widely recognized as the best hope for vaquitas’ existence. The risk of losing a vaquita during field operations was always acknowledged as a possibility, but  it was determined that it was unacceptable to stand by and watch the vaquita porpoise disappear without a heroic attempt at rescue.

Vaquita Conservation, Rescue, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) scientists in collaboration with an independent review panel established for this purpose and the Mexican government, will carefully review the events of the past 24 hours and determine how best to proceed. A necropsy has been performed and tissue samples have been collected to inform in this review.

Update information will be provided as it becomes available.

VAQUITA CPR INFORMA

SAN FELIPE, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MÉXICO, 5 DE NOVIEMBRE DE 2017-  El equipo de VaquitaCPR (Conservación, Protección y Recuperación de la Vaquita Marina) informa con profunda tristeza que durante las operaciones de campo para rescatar al mamífero marino en el mayor peligro de extinción del mundo, un ejemplar de vaquita marina ha muerto. Todo el equipo de rescate está desconsolado por esta devastadora pérdida.

Se han tomado precauciones extremas y una importante planificación en cada aspecto del plan de rescate VaquitaCPR. Este Programa reunió a los expertos en mamíferos marinos más destacados del mundo para determinar si bajo el cuidado humano podría rescatarlos de la extinción. Ningún proyecto de conservación como este se ha hecho antes, y la operación entrañaba un riesgo significativo. Sin embargo, los científicos estuvieron de acuerdo en que el riesgo de extinción por mortandad en redes de pesca, era mucho mayor que el riesgo de los esfuerzos de rescate.

Una vaquita hembra madura, que no estaba embarazada ni se encontraba lactando, fue capturada y transportada con éxito la tarde de este sábado. Después fue llevada a un corral flotante especialmente modificado, conocido como “El Nido”, ubicado en el norte del Golfo de California.

Desde el momento de la captura, la vaquita estuvo bajo constante cuidado y observación de su salud y bienestar. Los veterinarios de mamíferos marinos que monitoreaban la salud de la vaquita notaron que la condición del animal comenzó a deteriorarse y tomaron la determinación de liberarlo. Este intento no tuvo éxito y todas las medidas para mantenerlo con vida fueron aplicadas. A pesar de los heroicos esfuerzos del equipo veterinario, la vaquita no sobrevivió.

Todos los miembros del equipo internacional de rescate son expertos líderes en su campo y están profundamente comprometidos con salvar a la vaquita de una extinción inminente. La operación de rescate es considerada como una gran esperanza para la existencia de esta marsopa rara y esquiva que se encuentra en grave riesgo de extinción debido al enredo y ahogamiento en redes de enmalle en el Golfo de California en México.

Cientos de vaquitas se han perdido desde 1997 a pesar de los considerables esfuerzos del gobierno mexicano para prohibir la pesca con redes de enmalle a lo largo del área de distribución de las vaquitas y establecer una aplicación estricta de las medidas de conservación. La pesca ilegal con redes de enmalle continúa.

Con tan pocos ejemplares de vaquitas marinas, este comité de expertos internacionales en conservación y cuidado de animales se reunió a solicitud del gobierno mexicano y la comunidad científica, para desarrollar una operación de rescate y reubicación sin precedentes, ampliamente reconocida como la mejor esperanza para la supervivencia de las vaquitas. El riesgo de perder una vaquita durante las operaciones de campo siempre se reconoció como una posibilidad, pero se determinó que era inaceptable observar cómo la vaquita marina desaparecía sin un heroico intento de rescate.

Los científicos de Vaquita CPR en colaboración con un panel de revisión independiente establecido para este fin y acompañados por el gobierno mexicano, revisarán cuidadosamente los eventos de las últimas 24 horas y determinarán la mejor manera de proceder. Se realizó una necropsia y se tomaron muestras de tejido para informar con toda oportunidad sobre esta revisión.

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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.