The Mexican government has announced that in September they will deploy a crack team of dolphins in a last-ditch attempt to save the perilously endangered vaquita from extinction. In addition, they have also rolled out a blanket ban on fishing in the last remaining habitat of the little marine mammals, which are prone to getting caught in fishing nets and drowning.
The vaquita is a type of porpoise, and is thought to be one of the most endangered creatures in the world. Living in the Gulf of California, the population of the small cetaceans has been reduced to just 30 individuals at last count. The animals are not directly hunted themselves, but are declining due simply to being caught by accident as fishermen instead chase a highly prized fish that happens to live in exactly the same region.
Conservationists, however, have ambitious plans to save the few remaining vaquita from almost certain extinction. They want to round up as many of the cetaceans left, and move them to a specially protected marine refuge within the Gulf of Mexico, where they will hopefully be free from the threat of illegal fishermen and the nets they lay.
In order to achieve this, the conservationists have teamed up with some unlikely allies: the US Navy. They have been training a crack team of military dolphins to find the vaquita. Usually deployed to seek out underwater mines and divers, the dolphins have instead been trained to pick out the world’s smallest cetacean, and then surface and return to the boat when done so, in order to alert their handlers as to where the porpoises are.
The Seal Team 6 dolphins have so far been tested on seeking out the more common harbor porpoises in the San Francisco Bay area, and have excelled. Now, the Mexican Environment Minister Rafael Pacchiano has announced that the dolphins will be deployed in the Gulf of California in September this year. At the same time, Pacchiano also announced that there will now finally be a permanent ban on using gill nets in the last remaining vaquita habitat.
“This is a fantastic and encouraging step forward in the path to saving the vaquita, provided the ban is fully enforced and accompanied by fishing alternatives for local communities,” said the acting CEO of WWF-Mexico, Jorge Rickards, in a statement. “Today could mark a turning point for the world’s most endangered marine mammal, as this permanent ban on gillnets removes the only known threat to the vaquita.”
The two initiatives together will now give the world’s smallest, and most endangered cetacean a fighting chance to stave off extinction.