Dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy will be hunting down the vaquita porpoise as part of an international program to locate, capture and hopefully conserve the critically endangered species.
The last-ditch effort was proposed by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita last month through the creation of a “dream team” of scientists and veterinary specialists that will begin the conservation project next spring.
Now, the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has joined the preservation efforts.
Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific told The Associated Press this week that the Navy will collaborate with Mexican authorities by deploying some of its trained dolphins to the Sea of Cortés, the only place in the world where the vaquita lives.
The dolphins have been trained to locate several underwater objects, including mines. On this occasion they will locate the few remaining vaquitas by using their sonar abilities, and then return to the surface to let specialists know of the small porpoises’ location.
While vaquitas have never been kept in captivity, experts hope to be able to keep them in pens to provide them with a safe haven where they can be protected from predatory fishing and, with some luck, successfully breed.
The conservation plan could be deemed desperate, but the vaquitas’ current numbers left specialists few other options.
With the porpoises’ numbers falling steadily by 40% annually during the last five years — there were an estimated 60 a year ago — there could now be as few as eight breeding females left.
“At the current loss rate, the vaquita could probably go extinct by 2022 unless fishing restrictions remain in place and are effectively enforced,” said Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, president of the committee.
Illegal fishing of totoaba, a fish that shares the habitat of the vaquita and whose swimming bladder is coveted in Asian markets, has decimated both species, and stiff restrictions have failed to keep poachers at bay.