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Mexico Will Use Dolphins to Herd the Endangered Vaquita to Safety

Mine-hunting dolphins will help researchers transfer the remaining creatures into marine sanctuaries

One of the mine-hunting dolphins being retrained to find vaquita porpoises (U.S. Navy)
smithsonian.com

Mexico announced several moves last Friday to help support the vaquita porpoise. The creatures—also known as the panda of the sea due to its black-rimmed eyes—have undergone rapid decline in recent years. The announcement signals renewed efforts to save the diminutive creatures, including a permanent ban on fishing methods that put the creatures at risk and deployment of dolphins to help round up the remaining vaquitas for protection.

The vaquita is the smallest cetacean in the world, measuring just five-feet long as adults, and are only found in the northern reaches of the Gulf of California, the stretch of water that separates Baja California from Mexico. And these tiny creatures are in trouble. The most recent census of the animal shows there may be only 30 individuals left in the wild, Erin Blakemore reported for Smithsonian.com earlier this year.

The shy porpoises aren’t directly hunted, but are caught and drowned in gillnets—panels of mesh designed to allow only the fish's head through, trapping the creatures underwater. But like all cetaceans, the vaquita breathes air, making the gillnets deadly. The nets are set to trap another endangered species, the totoaba. This fish's swim bladder is used in Chinese medicine to make a soup believed to boost fertility—and demand has skyrocketed in recent years.

Though the Mexican government has attempted to control the use of gillnets in this region in the past, even instating a two-year ban on gillnets in a large swath of the bay in 2015, organized crime and illegal fishing for totoaba has kept pressure on the vaquita. Without further intervention, the creatures could go extinct as early as next year, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The declining situation led Mexico to announce a permanent ban on gillnets in the area, Reuters reports

Along with this announcement, Mexico's authorities also publicized their participation in one of the U.S. Navy's programs that will use specially trained dolphins to herd the endangered vaquita porpoise into pens in a marine refuge where they can be protected from the nets and other dangers, reports Agence France-Presse

“We’ve spent the past year working alongside the U.S. Navy with a group of dolphins they had trained to search for missing SCUBA divers. We've been training them to locate the vaquitas,” Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s environment minister said in a radio interview, according to the AFP. “We have to guarantee we capture the largest possible number of vaquitas to have an opportunity to save them.”

They plan to deploy the dolphins in September. But conservationists need to act fast; the vaquita’s population has dropped by 50 percent since 2015. In 1997, the population was estimated at 567 individuals.

While the mission to round up the vaquita is a long shot, there are some signs it may work. As Sandra Dibble at the San Diego Union Tribune reported last year, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program has been practicing in San Francisco Bay. Usually, the program trains dolphins and sea lions to detect things like underwater mines and missing SCUBA divers. But the dolphins were successfully re-trained to track down local porpoise populations.

When four of the dolphins are deployed in the Bay of California, they will be part of a team that will include boats and aircraft tracking down the vaquita, according to Dibble. The small porpoises will then be captured and relocated to a large pen off the coast of San Felipe where conservationists hope they will be able to breed and increase their population.

 “You are really getting down to the last few vaquitas,” Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center told Dibble. “We can’t afford to be slow about this. We have to give this our mightiest effort as quickly as possible.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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