The last-ditch attempt to save the world's most endangered cetacean has hit a stumbling block. After making history by catching two individuals, the conservation team tasked with trying to establish a captive breeding population reported that the adult female caught had unfortunately died.
Those involved are devastated by the outcome, reporting that she had “suffered complications”, but are hopeful that they can find more of the porpoises, and safeguard the future of the species known as the “panda of the sea”. While the death of this individual is clearly not ideal, the conservation organization said that “the risk of extinction due to mortality in fishing nets was much greater than the risk of rescue efforts.”
As part of the efforts to save the rare vaquita porpoise from extinction, a crack team including US Navy dolphins was sent to the Gulf of California to find and capture the animals, of which only 30 are thought to exist. By bringing them into captivity and keeping them in a specially constructed center free from harm, they hope to be able to breed the porpoises and save the species.
The tiny animals, which are the smallest species of cetacean, are also the most endangered. While not hunted themselves, they have fallen prey to the fishermen seeking out the highly prized totoaba fish, which lives in exactly the same region of the Gulf of California. When setting out gill nets to catch these fish, the swim bladders of which are worth thousands in Asian markets, unfortunate vaquitas are frequently caught as by-catch. Efforts to prohibit these fishermen have not been particularly successful.
This is not actually the first vaquita that the team has managed to catch since the start of the operation. Back in October, the team made history by successfully locating and capturing its first live porpoise. The individual captured, however, was estimated to have been a 6-month-old calf, so after a brief period of monitoring, they decided to release the animal.
“While we were disappointed we could not keep the vaquita in human care, we have demonstrated that we are able to locate and capture a vaquita,” said Dr Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a senior Mexican government scientist and VaquitaCPR Program Director. “We also succeeded in transporting one and conducting health evaluations that are part of our protocols safeguarding the animals’ health.”
The team took measurements of the calf, along with tissue samples to be analyzed. Some were sent to the Frozen Zoo project in San Diego with the hope of sequencing the genome. Afterwards, they returned the calf to the region of the Gulf where it was first captured, and where adult vaquitas had been seen.