It won't be easy, and it may never have happened if it weren't for a conversation between two of the world's leading experts on marine mammals, Frances Gulland and Sam Ridgway Gulland is the lead scientist at the Sausalito, California Marine Mammal Center and a member of the Committee International to Recover the Vaquita. Ridgway is also president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation.
The smallest porpoise in the world, the Vaquita, lives alone at the highest end of the Gulf of California, in Mexico. Its population was decimated by the nets of the fishermen who fishtotoaba, a fish whose swim bladder sells for between $ 18,000 and $ 25,000 in Hong Kong and possibly even more in mainland China, where it is regarded as a snack and medicine.
The appetite for bladderstotoaba It has brought the Vaquita to the brink of extinction. At the end of 2015, around 60 remained.
The Mexican government imposed a ban on nets in the region, but fishing continues illegally.
One possible solution would be to move the animals, but rescuers would first have to find the elusive creatures.
Gulland, who is also one of the founders in the Navy of the Marine Mammal Program, discussed with Ridgeway the situation of the Vaquita.
The program was launched in 1961 to train dolphins and search for amphibian bombers in Vietnam. Later, the dolphins were also successfully trained to search for underwater mines.
It occurred to Ridgeway that if dolphins can be trained to distinguish a human body underwater, perhaps they could be trained to find a porpoise. In this way, he shared the idea with Gulland.
The pro Vaquita committee then pitched the idea to the Mexican government and the Mexican Navy and officially asked the United States Navy to bring in the dolphins to help locate the vaquitas.
Notably, the dolphins will be deployed in the spring as part of a larger effort to find the porpoises and move them to a safe bay in other parts of the gulf.
How to train dolphins
Thanks to echolocation (a natural sound), dolphins can locate a person or an object hundreds of meters away, said Jim Fallin, the spokesman for the Marine Mammal Program of the United States Navy, and can be trained similar to dogs. If the training turns into a game with treats as prizes, some dolphins will participate.
"To do it, they have to be interested because they can get bored very quickly," Fallin said. "You can't force them to do anything." Training can take up to five years.
Little by little, the trainers present the dolphins with increasingly difficult tasks. First, they are taught to swim towards a close person in the water. Then the person would swim further and further away from the dolphin, and the task would be to swap and swim towards him, but not get too close. The dolphins are trained not to get too close so as not to scare the Vaquita, or hurt it.
Dolphins can tell a person from a porpoise or fish because they don't have lungs, Fallin said. Creatures with lung “sounds” are different from dolphins.
Fallin trusts that the dolphins, four females with a lot of experience in the Navy, will be able to find Vaquitas. It has recently been successfully tested on other species of marsupials. It is a difficult task, however, the dolphins would have to reach a few hundred meters to find the Vaquita, whose territory covers up to 1,600 square kilometers.
Even if they are found and captured, the Vaquita's fate is far from certain. There is concern that the few remaining females could die during capture, condemning the species. Captive breeding has successfully saved species such as the red wolf and the California condor, but the Vaquita has only been scientifically described since the 1950s and has never been bred, or even kept in captivity.
Some experts, such as Omar Vidal, Mexican director ofWorld Wildlife Fund, oppose the capture plan that, according to them, could harm or even kill the few remaining vaquitas and open an illegal fishery once they are removed from their natural habitat. "We must strive to save this porpoise where it belongs: in a healthy place in the Upper Gulf of California," he said.
Experts include Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of the Vaquita committee, Barbara Taylor, leader of the Marine Mammal Genetics Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Sarah Mesnick of NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center; They stressed that the capture program “should spare no effort or extension and application resources in the prohibition of the use of the net, which continues to be the highest priority conservation action for the species.
Veterinarians will assess the animals' reactions and release stressed individuals, they wrote. In case of death, the team will reevaluate the sanctuary strategy.
"It is important to emphasize that the goal of the recovery team is to return the Vaquita from the temporary sanctuary to an environment free of gillnets," they wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Photo: The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a critically endangered species of porpoise endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. It is considered the smallest and most threatened cetacean in the world. (Paula Olson via NOAA)
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