Navy Dolphins Training to Locate Threatened Vaquita

Vaquita Photo: Paula Olson, NOAA

Vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Gulf of California, is the world’s rarest marine mammal, and is in imminent danger of extinction. Now, US Navy dolphins are being trained to locate vaquita in a last-ditch effort to catch and and protect the last few dozen of these critically endangered porpoises.

The vaquita weren’t discovered until 1958 and now are in danger of being wiped out by illegal gill-netting by fishermen in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. The vaquita are being caught and drowned in gill-nets set by fishermen trying to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a prized delicacy in China.

The Navy Times reports, that the Navy dolphins are being trained to use their natural sonar to locate the extremely elusive vaquitas, then surface and advise their handlers.

“Their specific task is to locate” vaquitas, which live only in the Gulf of California, said Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific. “They would signal that by surfacing and returning to the boat from which they were launched.”

The dolphins have been trained by the Navy for tasks like locating sea mines.

Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chairman of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, wrote that “an international group of experts, including Navy personnel, have been working on two primary goals: determining the feasibility of locating and catching vaquitas, as a phase One. And as a second phase, to determine the feasibility of temporarily housing vaquitas in the Gulf of California.”

Rojas-Bracho said the effort by the international team of experts “would involve locating them, capturing them and putting them in some kind of protective area,” probably a floating enclosure or pen in a protected bay where they would not be endangered by fishing nets. Mexico has banned gill nets that often trap vaquitas in the area, but has had trouble enforcing it because the totoaba draws very high prices on the illegal market.

“At the current rate of loss, the vaquita will likely decline to extinction by 2022 unless the current gillnet ban is maintained and effectively enforced,” Rojas-Bracho wrote.

According to rough estimates, with vaquita population numbers falling by 40 percent annually, and only 60 alive a year ago, there could be as few as three dozen left.

Some are critical of the project. The vaquita has never been held or bred successfully in captivity, and concerns are that the stress of capture could kill many of the remaining animals. Omar Vidal, Mexico director of the World Wildlife Fund, opposes the capture plan and argues, “We must strive to save this porpoise where it belongs: in a healthy Upper Gulf of California.”

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