A recovery program intended to save the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise from extinction has ended without maintaining a single rescued specimen in captivity.
The federal Environment Secretariat (Semarnat) made the announcement yesterday, maintaining that November 10 had been the date on which it expected to terminate the VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery) project.
A team of 65 scientists from nine different countries started the operation in the upper Gulf of California in October, working for weeks in an attempt to capture some of the endangered mammals. The project’s goal was to keep the captured vaquitas in floating pens to protect them from gillnets, the biggest threat to their survival.
The team used underwater microphones known as hydrophones to help them to locate the porpoises.
But while two vaquitas were caught, neither was ultimately able to be successfully nurtured in captivity.
A female vaquita of reproductive age died last Saturday after it was captured while a six-month-old female calf caught earlier in the program was released after it showed signs of stress.
An autopsy was carried out on the deceased female and tissue samples were collected and sent to a laboratory for further analysis of the cause of death and to carry out other genetic studies.
The program was always going to be risky because the small mammals don’t cope well with the stress of capture but given how close they are to extinction, Semarnat approved the last-ditch effort.
The Animal Welfare Institute — a United States-based animal protection group — called for a halt to the program after the two unsuccessful attempts to maintain the creatures in captivity, stating that “not a single additional vaquita should be deliberately put in danger in this way.”
But by that time, scientists working on the project had also already recommended that the capture part of the program cease in consideration of the suffering and ultimate death of the second porpoise that was caught.
The project’s independent expert panel agreed and suspended capture efforts on November 4 although the team continued to monitor the species to learn more about its behavior up until yesterday. The team made a total of 32 sightings during the project with the vaquitas most frequently seen in pairs.
A team of specialists will now determine the best path forward to save the species, of which it is believed that fewer than 30 remain.
Gillnets used in shrimp and illegal totoaba fishing have posed the biggest threat to the vaquita marina leading to a permanent ban on their use coming into effect in June. However, a failure to prohibit the possession, sale and manufacture of the deadly nets means that they are still being illegally used, critics say.
Conservation of the unique species has received high-profile support, such as that from actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim. Together with President Enrique Peña Nieto they signed an agreement earlier this year to save the species but despite their best intentions, the reality of conserving the vaquita marina porpoise remains a monumental challenge.
Source: El Universal (sp)