Mexico and U.S. make big plan to save tiny porpoise from extinction

    The vaquita is a critically endangered porpoise species endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. (Photo via NOAA)

    The vaquita is a critically endangered porpoise species endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. (Photo via NOAA)

    The population of an adorable porpoise called the vaquita has fallen below 60. Scientists, the governments of two countries, and military dolphins are all part of a risky plan to save them.

    It’s a universally recognized fact in the science community that a small porpoise called the vaquita is one of the cutest marine mammals — it has black rings around its eyes and mouth that makes it look like it’s wearing makeup and smiling. It’s the smallest type of porpoise, growing to only four or five feet in length.

    A less delightful fact about the vaquita, however, is that they are the most endangered marine mammal in the world — scientists say there are fewer than 60 left.

    The vaquita’s population has fallen victim to illegal fishing with gill nets in their habitat in the Gulf of California. Though they aren’t the intended catch of these nets, they get tangled up in them and die.

    Mexico’s government has spent $70 million to try to save the porpoise, but it hasn’t been enough to curb the population’s decline, so they’ve reached out to the U.S. Navy for help. The two countries came up with a plan — to enlist U.S. trained military dolphins to use their echolocation and find the vaquitas. Once they are located, scientists will try to capture the vaquita and transport it to a protected sanctuary.

    Their biggest obstacle?

    “The part that is between the rock and the hard place is the fact that nobody has ever tried to catch a vaquita before or hold it in captivity,” says Andy Read, a marine biologist at Duke University, who is involved with planning the attempted capture.

    “It’s a risky undertaking. We might injure or potentially even kill an animal when we’re trying to capture it and that would be a disaster.”

    If the capture goes successfully, scientists will monitor the vaquitas in the sanctuary to see how they take to captivity. If they do well, then scientists will attempt to establish a breeding population to revitalize the species.

    And if the capture goes unsuccessfully, Read says the vaquita will remain in the ocean, and eventually become extinct.

    “I do think that if we don’t try to do something like this, we’ll lose the species. So whatever nerves I have are offset by excitement about trying to do something,” Read explains. “Doing nothing will only lead to one outcome.”

    The effort to capture the vaquita will get underway sometime in 2017.

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