The vaquita is a tiny (less than 2 m long) porpoise found only in the Upper Gulf of California (aka Sea of Cortez), Mexico. They were first described scientifically in 1958 by Ken Norris and Bill McFarland. Even early in the scientific investigation of this species, there were concerns about how few lived in this very limited area of the Sea of Cortez, and they were considered to be rare and elusive. A 1,960 km vaquita survey from the 8-m R/V Nai’a, conducted by Ken Norris, Randy Wells, and Bernd Würsig in 1979, resulted in only two sightings of small groups. Subsequent research by others over the ensuing decades confirmed that numbers of animals in the Upper Gulf were small and declining, due in large part to drowning in gillnets set for the large, endangered totoaba fish. Vaquita abundance has declined dramatically in recent years due to increased demand and high prices paid by Asian markets for totoaba swim bladders. In spite of increased efforts by the Mexican government to provide protection for the most endangered cetacean in the world, illegal totoaba netting has brought the numbers of remaining vaquitas to fewer than 30.
In an unprecedented effort to try to save the remaining animals from dying in illegal gillnets, in late 2016 the Government of Mexico accepted the recommendation of its international recovery team, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), to create the Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Rescue (VaquitaCPR). Working closely with the Mexican government’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in efforts led by Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, VaquitaCPR has developed a plan to attempt to catch and move vaquitas to a sanctuary in the Gulf where they would be under human care until such time as the Upper Gulf was considered to be a safe environment for their return to the wild – when the Upper Gulf is free of gillnets, when alternative fishing gear has been developed, and when derelict fishing gear has been removed. The plan is being implemented in tandem with Mexico’s ongoing efforts to end illegal fishing and remove gillnets from the Upper Gulf of California.
At the time of this writing, VaquitaCPR efforts to catch vaquitas have just begun. Efforts are based in San Felipe, in Baja California. Crucial funding has been received from a variety of sources, especially the Government of Mexico and AZA. The project is being managed by Cynthia Smith of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and involves partners from many organizations, including the Chicago Zoological Society (see the project website, vaquitaCPR.org for a full list). A facility on shore has been constructed to provide medical care and emergency housing, and a sea pen is nearing completion that will provide longer-term housing until a multi-year facility can be constructed. Field efforts involve three search vessels equipped with high-power binoculars and a highly experienced observation team. Trained dolphins are being used to help localize porpoises for capture. The catch team, led by Randy Wells, is made up of Danish scientists with extensive experience catching harbor porpoises for tagging off Denmark and Greenland, and porpoise and dolphin capture experts from Canada and the U.S. A team of highly skilled veterinarians and animal care personnel is distributed among all the catch and transport boats, and the shore-side facility. This project is extremely challenging and high risk – very few animals remain, they are elusive, and they have never been caught and maintained alive – but we could not ask for a better, more dedicated team to give the project the best possible chance of succeeding.
This article appeared on page 7 of the 2018 SDRP Annual Report, Nicks nNotches.