The vaquita is the most endangered animal in the world’s oceans. It is a small porpoise found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California. An acoustic census was taken last summer that counted the animals’ clicking noises emitted while they hunt. The census indicated a decline in population of almost 49% from the previous census conducted two years prior. It is estimated there are only 30 individuals remaining. Mexican military and coastal naval patrols have been powerless to halt illegal gill net fishing in Mexico’s Gulf of California. The result is that the vaquita is headed for extinction. The dangerously low numbers also add new urgency to a controversial plan to capture some of the remaining animals for a captive breeding program.
A 2015 survey estimated the vaquitas at about 60 individuals – this year, it is half that number. They’re dying off because they get trapped in illegal gill nets. The real irony is that the illegal gill nets are set to catch another endangered animal – the totoaba fish. The swim bladder for the totoaba fish commands extraordinarily high prices (sold for as much as $100,000 on the black market, according to a report last year from the Environment Investigation Agency) in China and some other Asian markets. The swim bladder is erroneously thought to help with a range of ailments from liver disease to arthritis. The demand has so far proved impossible to control and criminal organizations now control the totoaba fishery.
A captive breeding program looks to be the only solution for the vaquita. Jonas Teilmann, a cetacean biologist at Aarhus University in Denmark concluded, “We wish we could leave them in the wild, but right now there’s no other way to stop their extinction.”
Scientists would still face a daunting list of obstacles – after successfully capturing live vaquitas (which has never been tried), they would have to transport their captives in a moist stretcher, then house the animals, first in a soft-sided net pen and likely later in a large artificial pool along the gulf’s coast. They’ll also have to figure out how to provide care and food for a species with unknown veterinary requirements; and how to get the creatures to breed in their enclosure. Finally, they’d have to release both parents and naïve offspring into the wild. Andy Read, a marine biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina observed, “We know so little about the behavior and physiology of these animals. “ If you fail at any one of those steps, it’s game over.