Featured photo by Maris Sidenstecker / Save the Whales
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is one of the world’s most endangered species; new estimates of the population indicate that there are less than 40 individuals left in the world. The entire range of vaquita porpoise is limited to the northern part of the Gulf of California. Biologists and conservationists have noted a steady decline in the vaquita population. In recent years, the population has consistently been in decline by approximately 40 percent.
The demand for totoaba fish swim bladder, a delicacy in China, is one of the main cited reasons for the decline of the vaquita, as their habitat overlaps with that of the vaquita. Fishermen can receive thousands of dollars for each swim bladder extracted from each illegally-caught totoaba fish. In order to catch the totoaba fish, fishermen often employ gillnets, which end up not only trapping the totoaba fish, but also immobilizing vaquitas and bycatch (other marine life caught in fishing nets) found in the Gulf of California.
In the past, Mexico and other conservation groups have attempted to work with fisherman to limit their uses of gillnets, even going so far as banning the use of gillnets. A compensation program for the fishermen has also been put into place as an alternative to catching the prized totoaba fish. However, these initiatives have not been able to reverse the population decline of the vaquita, and abandoned nets left in the gulf are still threatening the vaquita’s recovery.
With less than 40 individuals remaining, Mexico and conservation groups have decided that the only hope to save the vaquita is to capture as many of the remaining individuals as possible and place them in a protected floating enclosure until the population begins to rebound and enough habitat is secured for them to safely return to. A research team dispatched in October identified two possible locations for such an enclosure, and the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita has been assembling a team of experts in the fields of cetacean capture, veterinary medicine, and acoustic monitoring to lead the project.
If these efforts to save the vaquita are successful, they would not be completely unprecedented. Other species, like the California condor, red wolf, scimitar-horned oryx, and black-footed ferret have been saved through captive breeding programs at zoos and aquariums. In the case of the California condor, for example, the success of the breeding program was facilitated by the fact that Andean condors, the closest living relative, had been cared for and bred already at the participating zoos and aquariums.
In the case of the vaquita, there are a few facilities that care for similar species, and the experience in caring for these similar species may prove invaluable to the vaquita caretakers. Learning about the care of the rescued harbor porpoises at the Vancouver Aquarium and the Commerson’s dolphins at SeaWorld parks, for example, may be the key to the success of Mexico’s vaquita capture program. Having the background knowledge on how to look after these fragile species is yet another key reason to why zoos and aquariums are key players in the conservation of species worldwide.
Source: ABC News