Scientists, technicians, Navy bottlenose dolphins set out to save Mexico’s vaquita porpoise
By SANDRA DIBBLE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 18, 2017
SAN FELIPE, Mexico — A flotilla of small vessels set off into Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California before daybreak on Friday, launching a daring and desperate quest to prevent the extinction of a species.
For the next month, biologists, veterinarians, technicians and four female U.S. Navy bottlenose dolphins from San Diego are slated to participate in this expedition aimed at locating Mexico’s few remaining vaquita porpoises. Dubbed Vaquita CPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery), the plan envisions not just capturing them, but breeding them in order to rebuild the population. And hopefully, once conditions allow, releasing them back into the wild.
The chances of success? Nobody knows, because it’s never been done before. Scientists say it’s one of the most complex marine mammal rescue efforts put into operation, and the challenge is a big one: Fewer than 30 vaquitas are believed to exist, and they are shy and prone to stay away from boats. No vaquita has ever been captured alive, much less bred under human care.
Yet if anyone is up to the task, this is the group that can do it: top dolphin and porpoise experts from Mexico, the United States, Denmark, Holland and New Zealand who are pooling their skills for this $5 million effort spearheaded by Mexico’s federal government off the coast of Baja California.
“If I didn’t think it could be done, I wouldn’t be here,” said Grant Abel, an animal husbandry specialist from New Zealand who has worked with finless porpoise populations in Japan and China. “The main challenge is the fact that this is the first time. Everything we do with these animals, we’re going to be looking at their behavior and responses to help guide us in our decision-making for the next step.”
The plan has been taking shape off the coast of San Felipe, a fishing community of some 30,000 residents that has been ground zero for vaquita rescue efforts for more than a decade. People here have been divided on the subject — some are working with government and environmental groups to remove totoaba nets and develop sustainable practices, while others see the protection measures as a threat to their livelihood.
Since 2015, when President Enrique Pena Nieto came to announce a ban on drift gillnets and other actions to protect the vaquita, fishermen have received compensation not to fish. Mexico’s federal government took it a step further this month, announcing a no-navigation zone in the vaquita’s habitat through Dec. 17 in support of Vaquita CPR.
The lights of San Felipe glimmered like polished jewels as the scientists left in the dark Friday for their first full day of searching. A small crowd gathered on a dock by the expedition’s main dormitory and operations center, the cruise ship Pacific Monarch. It was a good beginning, with low winds and clear skies that promised smooth waters as they set off with nets, custom-made stretchers, and special carrier boxes designed to provisionally hold any captured vaquita being brought to shore.
Vaquita CPR is an elaborately planned operation being envisioned in stages, and participants are divided into three teams. One is tasked with finding the vaquitas, the second with catching them, and the third caring for them in captivity. The aim is to catch as many as possible, and the hope is to capture at least two.
Each stage has its own leader and each step triggers the next step, with decisions being made along the way on how to proceed.
The daily operation involves six dozen people split among about eight vessels: three charged with spotting and tracking the animals; one to carry the Navy dolphins; two “net-boats” carrying lightweight nets designed to ensnare vaquitas without harming them; a boat to retrieve vaquitas; and finally a transport boat to carry the vaquita for monitoring at an on-shore “vaquita care center” set up under a tent with two pools, and ultra-violet filtration systems, veterinary facilities and padding on the floor to muffle the sounds of footsteps.
“We’ve seen complicated projects, but this is the most ambitious, because the population is tiny and they’ve never been captured before,” said Andy Read, a marine biologist from Duke University, who is participating in the “catch” phase of the effort. Veterinarians on the expedition will be watching closely for any signs of stress in the animal such as changes in breathing patterns or arching. “The animals have never been out of the water before, they’ve never been restrained before, this is a very stressful experience for them,” Read said.
The world’s smallest cetacean and most endangered marine mammal, vaquitas are porpoises that live in shallow waters of Mexico’s biologically rich Upper Gulf. They measure up to 5 feet, weigh as much as 120 pounds, are identified by the dark rings around their eyes and lips, and travel only in small groups of two or three. Even when they surface to breathe, they are discreet, their dorsal fins briefly breaking the surface with little splashing.
The vaquita’s numbers have been dropping for years, but a surge in the illicit demand for another endangered species endemic to the region, the giant totoaba fish, has been especially catastrophic to the species, as vaquita end up as catch in the totoaba nets and drown.
The expedition’s lead veterinarian is Frances Gulland, senior scientist with the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and a member of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. She has conducted necropsies on several dead vaquitas, more than half a dozen last winter and spring. Despite extensive efforts by government and environmental groups, she said “we’re not stopping the deaths, they’re still going on.”
Supporters of Vaquita CPR see the expedition as a last resort, saying efforts to eliminate the illegal totoaba fisheries have fallen short. More than two years after the gill net ban, the illicit totoaba trade has not gone away, with organized crime behind much of the activity, authorities say, and unrelenting demand driven by high black market prices in Asia for totoaba bladders, which consumers believe have curative powers.
“None of us want to go out and catch these animals,” said Randy Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society’s dolphin research program in Sarasota, Fla., who is heading up the “catch” phase of Vaquita CPR. “We would just as soon that the environment be cleaned up, and be a perfect place for them to go on and live. But that isn’t going to happen within the time frame that will allow them to survive.”
Members of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, an advisory group to the Mexican president, initially recommended against any plan to remove the animals from the wild. But in its most recent report, issued in May, the group concluded that “that the risks of capture and captive maintenance are high, but these are greatly outweighed by the risk of entanglement in illegal gillnets in the wild.”
CIRVA’s chairman, Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, is a marine mammal specialist with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, and for years a leader in efforts to save the vaquita. He is now overseeing this latest vaquita rescue effort, working closely with the San Diego-based National Marine Mammal Foundation, which has been put in charge of coordinating the operation by Mexico’s federal government.
“If the totoaba black market hadn’t exploded like it did, we’d be in a different ball game,” Rojas-Bracho said. “But that’s where we are now, so we have to deal with it.”
The primary funder for the effort is Mexico’s federal government, which last spring announced a $3 million contribution through its Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources. The Chicago Zoological Society and Marine Mammal Center have been key U.S. supporters. But there have been others as well — such as the owner of the Museo de la Ballena in La Paz, who has offered up the Pacific Monarch cruise ship and other smaller vessels to support the operation.
Still, the effort has come under fire from some environmental groups, who say the only solution should be eliminating corruption and strengthening rule of law in Upper Gulf, a vast and sparsely population region.
But the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which opposed the Vaquita CPR plan, stopped short of criticizing it as the operation began. In a statement sent Friday, the group’s leader, Capt. Paul Watson, urged the Mexican government to “pass stricter laws with harsher sentences for totoaba poachers.”
The World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico office, which like Sea Shepherd has worked to promote conservation of the vaquita’s habitat and remove ghost nets, issued a statement praising Vaquita CPR, as a “bold and necessary strategy within wider comprehensive efforts to save the vaquita.”
While vaquita are elusive, the scientists say their search is not a blind one. A key tool is an underwater acoustic monitoring system that relies on dozens of underwater CPODS to register the high-frequency clicks used by the vaquita to find their prey. Readings show “hot spots” where vaquitas are located.
The search vessels, staffed with a dozen expert observers divided among the 125-foot former fishing vessel the Maria Cleofas and two smaller boats who rely on high-powered binoculars to scour the horizon for vaquitas, are key. But for the first time, they will have some help from the Navy’s Point Loma-based Marine Mammal program, which uses trained dolphins to locate underwater items through echolocation and a their capacity for directional hearing beneath the water’s surface. In a test last year, the dolphins showed themselves capable of detecting the presence of porpoises in San Francisco Bay.
The four female Atlantic bottle nose dolphins, ranging in ages from their late 30s to early 40s, were “chosen based upon their calm, docile nature and because of their demonstrated adaptability and acumen for this unique mission,” said Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems. They have “been trained to detect, report and approach vaquita, but not to interact with them,” he said.
Following close behind the U.S. Navy dolphins are two net boats staffed by six Danes with extensive experience catching harbor porpoises using lightweight nets that stay close to the surface.
Two decades ago, in 1997, the vaquita population was counted at 567. By 2008, it had fallen to 245. In 2016, it plummeted to 60. And last October, the survey showing 30 was the worst news yet.
“I think this is our last chance, I don’t think they’ll make it through another totoaba season,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is heading the effort’s vaquita search team.
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A bottlenose dolphin reacts to its U.S. Navy trainer in an open-air pen at the Mine and Santi-Submarine Warfare Center in San Diego in March 2015. Researchers hope to use the dolphins in locating some of the few surviving vaquita porpoises in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California.
DON BARTLETTI/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS