A female vaquita marina porpoise died on Saturday after it was captured in a recovery program intended to save the endangered species from extinction.
Yesterday, the federal Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) reported “with deep sadness” that the female vaquita, which was of reproductive age, had died after it was captured.
“The whole rescue team is desolate after this devastating loss,” the secretariat said in a prepared statement.
“No conservation project like this has been done before, and the operation entailed a significant risk. Nonetheless, the scientists agreed that the risk of extinction due to mortality in fishing nets was far greater than the risk entailed by the rescue efforts.”
From the beginning, researchers at the VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery) Project, a last-ditch effort to rescue the vaquita from extinction, did not know if the mammals could tolerate the stressful conditions of being transported and kept in captivity.
The health of the specimen caught over the weekend was monitored constantly by veterinarians specializing in marine wildlife. When the animal’s health began to deteriorate, Semarnat said, the researchers decided to release it, but it died regardless. The cause of death was not disclosed.
“Hundreds of vaquitas have been lost since 1997 despite the considerable efforts of the Mexican government to ban gillnets in the vaquitas’ area of distribution and strictly enforce conservation measures,” Semarnat said.
It was the second capture of a vaquita since the conservation program began a month ago in the upper Gulf of California. The first was a six-month old calf that was released shortly after its capture when it showed signs of stress.
In reaction to the two unsuccessful capture attempts, a United States-based animal protection organization called for a halt to the vaquita capture program.
“With fewer than 30 vaquita remaining in the wild, the loss of a reproductive female is catastrophic for the species’ future,” said the Animal Welfare Institute in a press release this morning.
The organization also expressed concern over the fate of the six-month-old calf that was released two weeks ago.
The institute acknowledged that the vaquita capture program “was borne out of a desperate, yet well-intentioned desire to save the species.”
But “these tiny porpoises do not respond well to the stress of capture, and not a single additional vaquita should be deliberately put in danger in this way.”
The non-governmental organization believes the government should increase enforcement efforts throughout the upper Gulf of California and stop the illegal fishing.
It believes that a ban imposed on gillnet fishing is insufficient because it provides exemptions for corvina and mackerel gillnet fisheries, and fails to prohibit the possession, sale and manufacture of the “deadly” nets.
The intention of the VaquitaCPR project is to capture the animals and keep them in floating pens where they will be protected from the gillnets.