Saving a life is hard; saving a species is heroic. Scientists and conservationists were reminded of this fact this week when they were forced to abandon their last-ditch, Hail Mary plan to save the vaquita, a tiny porpoise barely hanging on to survival off the coast of Baja, Mexico.
Launched a month ago, the expensive rescue mission at first met with some success, catching two of the 15 or so remaining vaquitas inhabiting the Sea of Cortez. But then things went south. The plan was to relocate the porpoises and help keep them alive in captivity where they wouldn’t be threatened by illegal fishing boats. The problem was nobody knew how they would respond to life in a sea pen. Apparently, very poorly.
The first captured individual, a calf, had to be released almost immediately because it was so stressed. Last week, a captured adult female—one of the few vaquitas alive that could reproduce—died before it could be released.
Once the female died, on November 4th, the 67-person team halted the operation, a joint undertaking by the Mexican government and the U.S. Navy called VaquitaCPR. On Friday, Science News reports it is being called off for good.
“There’s nothing worse than having an animal die in your hands,” Frances Gulland, the lead VaquitaCPR veterinarian and a scientist at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, told Science News.
The remaining team will now focus on trying to get detailed photographs of the remaining vaquitas in the Gulf of California, their only habitat, in order to help keep track of them. (There are also very few photos of the vaquita, a source of frustration for this reporter, who has been exposed to the photo below far too many times over the years).
For the past 30 years the vaquita population has been decimated by illegal fishing practices. In 1990, there were an estimated 700 vaquita porpoises, but by 2010 there were less than 60. In addition to shrimp farming practices during the ‘90s, experts agree that the overwhelming majority of vaquitas today are killed when they become entangled in gillnets. Large net walls that hang vertically in the water, gillnets are set illegally by fisherman hunting for another endangered aquatic species endemic to the Gulf of California—the totoaba—whose bladder fetches an extremely high price in Asia. They’re made from a transparent monofilament line that fish and other animals are unable to see.
The ambitious plan to save the tiny porpoise, which deployed trained search dolphins to seek them out along with a small armada of boats, had sparked controversy among conservationists and marine biologists from the get-go.
“What’s the point of saving a species if you can’t protect the habitat that the species is in?” Sea Shepard founder, Paul Watson, told Earther last month. “Habitat and species must go together.”
“What we want the Mexican government to do, and what we have asked them to do, is have stiffer sentences and more enforcement,” he said. “If you can stop the poachers, you can save the vaquita.”
In a foreshadowing tweet, Trevor Branch, a fisheries biologist at the University of Washington, wrote last month that he worried “both that capture and captive-breeding will result in the deaths of more vaquita, AND that doing nothing will lead to extinction.”
Sad, but probably true.