SAN FELIPE, Mexico, October 13, 2017 (ENS) – An international team of experts has gathered in San Felipe at the request of the Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and has begun a unique plan to save from extinction the world’s smallest porpoise, the critically endangered vaquita.

The vaquita is found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California; it was first discovered in 1958. But between 1997 and 2016, hundreds of vaquitas died in gillnets. Their estimated population dropped from about 600 to fewer than 30 animals today.

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Vaquita sighted during 2008 survey in Gulf of California by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Photo by Paula Olsen courtesy NOAA)

The operation in the Gulf of California began October 12, using trained U.S. Navy dolphins to locate vaquita, whose numbers have dwindled by 90 percent in the past five years.

The project, which has been recommended by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, CIRVA, involves locating, rescuing and then temporarily relocating the vaquitas to an ocean sanctuary off the coast of San Felipe.

Experts from Mexico, the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom are all working together on the project, known as VaquitaCPR.

The goal of VaquitaCPR is to return the vaquitas to their natural habitat once the primary threat to their survival has been eliminated.

“Rescuing these animals and placing them in a temporary sanctuary is necessary to protect them until their natural habitat can be made safe,” said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead vaquita expert and chair of CIRVA. “We realize that capturing even a few vaquitas will be very difficult, but if we don’t try the vaquita will disappear from the planet forever.”

Alex Olivera, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Mexico representative, said, “We support this last-ditch effort to save the vaquita from extinction, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to allow fishing to continue in its habitat.”

“These beautiful animals deserve to live free in the Gulf of California, but that will never happen until the Mexican government eliminates the illegal gillnet fishing that has driven these porpoises to the very brink of extinction,” said Olivera.

In an unprecedented move in April 2015, Mexico’s President Peña Nieto announced a two-year gillnet ban throughout the vaquitas’ range, compensated fishermen and related industries for their loss of income, and enhanced multi-agency enforcement of the ban led by the Mexican Navy.

In June, the ban on gillnet fishing was made permanent. The government launched an extensive survey of the vaquita population using an approach that included both visual monitoring and advanced techniques that use sound to locate the animals.

To date, the Mexican government has committed more than US$100 million to the effort to protect the vaquita and support the local fishing community.

“This critical rescue effort is a priority for the Mexican government and we are dedicated to providing the necessary resources in order to give the plan its best chance of success,” said Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources Rafael Pacchiano.

Despite these critical efforts, illegal gillnet fishing continues, targeting a specific fish that is also endangered called totoaba.

The totoaba is not caught for food. Its swim bladder is highly prized in Asian markets for its purported cosmetic and medicinal value.

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A floating sea pen is anchored off the coast of San Felipe, Mexico where vaquitas will temporarily be held. (Photo by Kerry Coughlin/National Marine Mammal Foundation)

Dr. Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, says of the current rescue effort that “Experts from around the world have come together for the vaquita in much the same way conservationists did to save the California condor from extinction in the 1980s. We recognize the challenges, but the conservation and scientific communities feel a duty to act without delay and hope our collective expertise can make a difference.”

A crucial part of VaquitaCPR is the acoustic monitoring system that will help to locate the remaining vaquitas. This monitoring has been supported since 2012 by WWF and operated by the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change of Mexico to help estimate the vaquita’s population.

WWF will also continue supporting the retrieval of lost or abandoned “ghost” nets, many of them illegal, which drift aimlessly and continue to entangle and kill vaquitas and other marine species. Both the acoustic monitoring and the net retrieval are conducted with the help and experience of local fishermen.

Jorge Rickards, CEO of WWF Mexico, said, “Although this effort faces a lot of uncertainty and is highly risky, WWF recognizes it as a necessary action to save the vaquita from extinction. WWF supports CPR with the sole aim of returning a healthy vaquita population to the wild, and as such our primary focus will continue to be ensuring a healthy, gillnet-free Upper Gulf of California where both wildlife and local communities can thrive.”

Captured vaquita will be placed in pens in the Gulf to protect them from illegal fishing activities, which have led to the species’ near extinction.

The hope is that, once protected, the vaquita will be able to breed and grow their numbers so that one day they might survive again in the wild.

“This risky option became the only option, but vaquita have never been captured alive before, so this effort is uncertain,” Olivera said. “It’s a high-stakes operation that’s happening because the Mexican government has shown an inability to protect the animals in the wild. That has to change if the vaquita is to have any future.”

Center for Biological Diversity says these steps are critical to safeguarding the vaquita:

* – Effective enforcement to halt all illegal fishing activities;
* – Extension of the refuge area in the Gulf of California to include all of the vaquita’s habitat;
* – Prohibition of the possession and transportation of gillnets, as well as their use in commercial and artisanal fisheries, for any species and in any kind of vessel, within the refuge area;
* – Prohibition of the navigation of vessels during all night hours inside the refuge area;
* – The Mexican government should continue to support and fund the monitoring of the population until population recovery is assured in vaquita habitat.

Earlier this year the Center and other conservation groups petitioned the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to ban imports of seafood caught with gillnets in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California in order to save the vaquita.

Cynthia Smith, executive director of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, said, “The international team of experts that have stepped up to save the most endangered marine mammal on the planet is extraordinary and a project like this has never been tried before. VaquitaCPR is important because if this conservation model works, we may be able to use a similar approach to save other marine mammals that face extinction.”

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