VaquitaCPR ends capture program in Gulf of California after vaquita dies in captivity

VaquitaCPR, the emergency conservation team pulled together by the Mexican government in a desperate attempt to save the vaquita from extinction, announced last Friday that its capture program had come to an end.

Article by Mike Gaworecki.

VaquitaCPR, the emergency conservation team pulled together by the Mexican government in a desperate attempt to save the vaquita from extinction, announced last Friday that its capture program had come to an end.

There are only 30 vaquita believed to still be alive in the wild. VaquitaCPR launched its effort to capture them in October. The plan was to keep the animals safe in specially built, floating sea pens until the species’ survival was no longer threatened by the illegal fishing activities and trade that have decimated its numbers.

The vaquita is found nowhere else on Earth but the Upper Gulf of California, the body of water that separates the Baja California Peninsula from mainland Mexico.

Just two of the marine mammals were taken into captivity by VaquitaCPR’s scientists, and neither was able to adapt to human care. The first, a juvenile female vaquita, was successfully released after veterinarians determined that captivity had caused the animal too much stress. The second, a breeding-age female that was not pregnant or lactating, also responded poorly to being under the care of humans, and died as the team was attempting to return her to the wild.

VaquitaCPR immediately suspended the capture program following the vaquita’s death, and ended its field operations in the Gulf of California as of November 10.

“Because of the vaquita’s reaction towards human care, VaquitaCPR lead scientists made a unanimous recommendation to an independent review panel of experts to cease the capture portion of the operation,” VaquitaCPR said in a statement. “The independent review panel agreed with this recommendation. VaquitaCPR suspended catch operations on November 4 and changed the operational focus to conducting photographic identification of individual animals, to better refine our understanding of abundance and ranging patterns.”

Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a scientist with Mexico’s environment ministry and the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) who is also the head of VaquitaCPR, said that the team of 65 scientists from nine countries was not giving up on its fight to save the Critically Endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus) from extinction.

“While field operations end today, VaquitaCPR stands for Conservation, Protection and Recovery of the vaquita porpoise,” Rojas-Bracho said in a statement released on Saturday. “We will not give up, we will continue our efforts to save the vaquita.”

A necropsy was performed on the deceased vaquita and tissue samples sent to a lab for analysis. A full report on the cause of death is reportedly forthcoming.

VaquitaCPR also said that, together with the independent review panel assembled expressly for this purpose, it will be reviewing the results of its field operations and making a technical recommendation to the Mexican government through CIRVA regarding the next steps that should be taken to save the small porpoise.

The vaquita has been driven to the precipice of extinction by gillnet fishing, the true target of which in the Gulf of California is the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), another Critically Endangered species. Totoaba swim bladders are in such high demand in Asian countries like China, where they are believed to have medicinal value, that they can fetch prices of over $9,000 per pound. (There is no scientific evidence showing that the swim bladders have any medical properties whatsoever.)

They may not be the species targeted by the gillnets, but vaquita become entangled in them all the same and drown. In response, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto adopted a two-year gillnet ban throughout the vaquita’s range in April 2015. The ban was made permanent as of July 2017.

With the vaquita population continuing to plummet, the prohibition on the use of gillnets does not appear to have made much difference thus far — but environmentalists say that much tougher enforcement of the ban is the only way to save the vaquita at this point.

“The CPR efforts were a bold move and as they end, we urge all those who care about the vaquita to show similar courage and commitment to ensure a gillnet-free Upper Gulf of California,” Jorge Rickards, CEO of WWF-Mexico, said in a statement.

The fact that the VaquitaCPR team observed vaquita mothers and calves during its field operations shows that we still have an opportunity to save the critically endangered marine mammal, Rickards noted.

“Even though the situation seems dire, we cannot give up now, especially when there remains a glimmer of hope with vaquitas reproducing in the area,” he said. “Any available resource must be immediately directed to habitat protection in the Upper Gulf of California to ensure strict and full enforcement of the gillnet ban and removal of ghost nets. Illegal fishing cannot be allowed, as that will lead to only one possible outcome: extinction.”

David Bader, a spokesperson for VaquitaCPR, echoed this sentiment in comments to Mongabay.

“It’s important to note that VaquitaCPR is part of a much broader conservation effort for the vaquita,” Bader said. “VaquitaCPR has always been focused on ex situ conservation efforts for the vaquita, finding a way to buy time for them while bringing them into protected sanctuaries where they can be safe from gillnets, which are the key problem and also one of the most difficult things to solve here in the Upper Gulf. Now that these efforts haven’t succeeded, all of our efforts — and by ‘our’ I mean the global community, governments and citizens — need to focus on this region of the Upper Gulf to make sure it is gillnet-free.”

Header picture: VaquitaCPR team members with a vaquita calf that had been taken into captivity and held in a floating sea pen. Photo credit: VaquitaCPR.