A risky and near desperate measure intended to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction has been announced by the Mexican government, in cooperation with an international committee.
An endangered species whose numbers are declining rapidly, the vaquita is only found in a small region of the Sea of Cortez.
But a plan has been hatched to capture as many vaquitas as possible in the spring and confine them to preselected areas of the ocean where their protection can be more efficiently enforced.
According to rough estimates, only about three dozen of the world’s smallest porpoise remain.
In 2012, the population was 200. Two years later it had dropped to fewer than 100.
With the numbers falling steadily by 40% annually — there were 60 a year ago — there could now be as few as eight breeding females left.
Conservationists fear the porpoise will be extinct by 2022.
“Locating them, capturing them, there is an inherent risk to everything,” said the chairman of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita of the danger involved. But the team is willing to take those risks because “we have to do something, as an emergency measure,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho.
The effort will be carried out by a group of experts in acoustic monitoring, porpoise capture, veterinary medicine and other specialties.
“The team is the best that can be put together in the world. It is the ‘dream team,'” he said.
But others worry about the effects on the local environment by effectively removing the endemic cetacean from its natural habitat.
If the porpoise is gone, fishermen may descend in droves and finish off the totoaba and other species.
Omar Vidal, Mexico director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), opposes the capture plan. He said capture is “not a desirable or practical option for the vaquita. We must strive to save this porpoise where it belongs: in a healthy upper Sea of Cortez.”
If the plan goes ahead, it would be the first time a vaquita porpoise has been captured alive.
While the capture project is opposed by the WWF, the organization continues to collaborate with the Mexican government agencies in other efforts.
This week, the Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) announced that along with WWF personnel it had found and removed abandoned fishing nets located in the vaquita’s natural habitat.
In a press release, Semarnat detailed that the special operation was carried out over 21 days during which 11,814 kilometers were covered.
Close to 140 “ghost” nets were found, but the environmentalists were only able to remove 103.
The WWF explained that ghost nets are dumped, forgotten or lost by fishermen, and can drift for months or even years.
Live animals were removed from the nets, including two sea turtles and hundreds of specimens of crustaceans and fish —including one totoaba.
But six other totoabas were found dead, along with three sea turtles, several rays and over a thousand fish of various species.
At 1.5 meters long, the vaquita has only been scientifically identified since the 1950s and has rarely been seen alive. It has never been bred or even held successfully in captivity.
The vaquita has been called the “panda of the sea” because of the dark rings around its eyes.