The U.S. Navy will deploy its highly trained bottlenose dolphins this spring to search and locate its tiny and critically endangered relatives: the vaquita porpoises.

The vaquitas, as well as the totoaba fishes, are close to extinction since they are appreciated in places such as China, where they are used for traditional medicine. Many of them have died due to the use of gill nets. The U.S. Navy’s operation will be deployed in the Gulf of California.

U.S. Navy's dolphin
U.S. Navy’s trained dolphin. Image credit: Ocean Beach California 90107.

“The new part is trying to take at least some of the vaquitas into temporary sanctuary so if we can’t get this situation under control with illegal totoaba fishing, we’ll at least have some vaquitas left,” said Barbara Taylor, a marine mammal geneticist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a vaquita conservationist.

The US Navy has been working with dolphins for decades

The U.S. Navy has been working with dolphins since the 1950’s. Currently, it is focusing on training dolphins and sea lions for underwater missions. They can find mines or military equipment underwater. They are the equivalent of guard dogs in the water since they are also trained to protect naval assets like ships from attacks.

This time, the U.S. Navy will use their highly-trained bottlenose dolphin squadron not to locate bombs but to locate Vaquitas to conserve the last ones of them.

The dolphins will find them and then they will be captured and transported to a safe location. Taylor said that it would be ideal if they were to breed, but she doesn’t expect that. At the moment, they are planning to keep a group of vaquitas safe from illegal fishing with the aim of returning these tiny porpoises to the Gulf of California.

A test was run in the San Francisco Bay, and the U.S. Navy’s bottlenose dolphins managed to locate San Francisco’s harbor porpoises successfully. Dolphins should use their natural sonar to search the vaquitas. Once they find one, they will show their location by surfacing.

For this operation, the U.S. Navy has been collaborating for over a year with the Mexican Navy and scientists from both countries. The Mexican government has suspended the use of gill nets in certain parts of the Gulf with the purpose of protecting species like the vaquitas. They said they would compensate the fishermen who respect the ban. Since 2004, the government of Mexico has introduced several measures to save vaquitas. Furthermore, in April 2015 it pledged $70 million to enforce the gill net ban in the upper half of the Gulf.

According to Mr. Rojas-Bracho, who is the chair of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, at the current rate loss, the vaquitas will probably undergo extinction by 2022 unless the ban on gill nets is effectively enforced.

There are only 60 vaquita porpoises left in the world

Over the last two decades, the vaquitas have been disappearing fast mainly due to illegal fishing and the use of gill nets to catch the giant fish called Totoaba, which is considered a delicacy in China. Totoaba is valued on $100,000 per kilogram.

Currently, experts believe there are less than 60 vaquitas left in the world. These porpoises live in the Gulf of California. Image credit:

“Despite heroic efforts to ban gillnets and to increase enforcement using the Navy, this illegal fishing for totoaba has continued and the recovery team felt that they needed to try something else — because at that rate [the vaquitas] will be gone in the next year or two,” said Barbara Taylor.

Taylor is also involved in acoustical surveys that try to hear the vaquitas in the Gulf of California. She said that she hears them less and less. The mission is believed to start late spring, but there are lots of things that need to be done. She said that not everyone supports their intentions to capture the vaquitas because that could harm them. The risk of killing a vaquita while trying to capture it is high. As well, they are not sure how they will respond to living in captivity since they don’t know if vaquitas can survive like that. Vaquitas have never been bred or kept in captivity before.

Taylor remarked that the important thing is to ban gill nets and to enforce that prohibition, because even if they keep some vaquita porpoises in a safe place, most of them will still be living in the wild, exposed to illegal fishing.  The vaquita population is decreasing on an accelerated annual rate of 40 percent.

Many governmental organizations and NGOs have been trying to help in the conservation of vaquitas, for example, the Marine Mammal Commission and conservation bodies such as the WWF.

Source: The Verge