Science, Tech & Environment

This is the controversial plan underway to save the endangered whale-like vaquita

Vaquita4_Olson_NOAA.jpg

A vaquita.

Credit:

Paula Olson/NOAA

The vaquita is one of the smallest, and rarest, cetacean species. The diminutive porpoise is native to the northern part of the Gulf of California. Scientists estimate that only 60 individuals remain in the wild. What’s driving down the population? Nets cast by poachers searching for an endangered fish — the totoaba. 

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“The reason that they are even closer to extinction than ever before is because of this illegal activity where they set these gill nets with no surface markings to catch this big fish,” says Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “And it means that we have lost 80 percent of the species in only four years. So there's a tremendous amount of ongoing dangers and despite heroic efforts by the government of Mexico to ban gill net legal fishing, the illegal fishing is still an enormous threat and it isn't contained yet."

Related: A Mexican porpoise is facing extinction — almost by accident

Taylor and her colleagues are working on a risky strategy to save the vaquita, in part motivated by a past failure. 

“I was on a survey in 2006 to find the last of the Yangtze River dolphins and take them into oxbow lakes to protect them. And we were too late,” Taylor says. “We lost a species that's been here for 35 million years and that had a profound effect on all of us — on the recovery team — for what then became the most endangered marine mammal in the world.”

Taylor and other researchers are investigating a conservation strategy that involves capturing and placing some of the remaining vaquitas in enclosures out in the gulf — in an effort to save them. There are, however, a lot of risks to this strategy. 

“There's a lot of uncertainty to the capturing and keeping them in one place,” Taylor says. “Vaquitas are very secretive, shy animals and in 64 days of surveying last year we only had 28 sightings. So they're hard to find and they avoid boats, so capturing them by running a net around them would be extremely difficult. And then we don't know how the animals are going to react to being handled. Some porpoises do OK and other species go into shock. ... And then there's the non-trivial issue of setting up a pen in a sometimes very violent part of the sea and making sure that they aren't more at risk in one of these pens in a hurricane then they would have been out in the wild.”

Still, Taylor thinks it’s important to at least try. 

“We have had a lot of discussions on whether or not taking some action to take some vaquitas into captivity would detract from the plan A, which is getting the gill nets out of the gulf. ... And it's a really dangerous situation in that regard. But we all agree that if we don't take some steps now to learn whether or not it's feasible to save vaquitas that that door will be closed and we'll have fewer options for saving this species.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.