The Uncertain Future of the Vaquita

The vaquita is the smallest porpoise in the world and also the most endangered. Last year, a scientific survey determined there were about 30 vaquitas left in wild, down from the 60 or so found the previous year. With such low numbers, the species appears to be teetering on the edge of extinction, and scientists are now are developing a daring rescue plan to remove the vaquita from its home in the Gulf of California.

To get some background on the situation and more details on the rescue, I spoke to conservation biologist Barbara Taylor. Taylor is a scientist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California who has been studying the vaquita for more than 20 years. She is also a lead member of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, which is working on the plan remove the species from the wild in order to save it.

Listen to the InsideNATURE podcast interview above or read an edited transcript that follows.

NATURE: For listeners that aren’t familiar with the vaquita, could you just tell us a little bit about the species, for example, what they eat, where they live, and why they’re so small?

Well, vaquitas are a porpoise. A porpoise differs from a dolphin in that it doesn’t have a beak like Flipper. It looks more like a teeny-tiny version of a killer whale with a blunt forehead. They have a very nice makeup job. They’ve got sort of a black lipstick and black rings around their eyes, a very lovely little, slender porpoise.

There are seven species of porpoises. Of those, vaquitas are the smallest ones, but they’re also the only ones that live in the desert. They’ll eat any small fish, and they use really high echolocation to find their food, so about 10 times higher than bats. That gives them an advantage in being able to find these little tiny fishes in waters that, because they’re productive, are also very murky.

They mature when they’re about four and only have one calf about every two years, so they’re very slow reproducers, which makes them especially vulnerable. Vaquita are even more vulnerable because they only live in a very small area in the very northern Gulf of California. They’re naturally a very shy animal, so they avoid motor noise. They’re so hard to see that a lot of the fisherman, for many years, have referred to them as mythical animals, but of course they’re not mythical.

NATURE: You’ve been working with vaquitas for 20 years. Have you ever seen one yourself or do they even evade your expert eyes?

No. They can’t evade my eyes because I use 25-power binoculars on big ships. We have look for them in very special ways so that we can see them far enough out that they don’t detect the vessel noise and we can actually see the animals. I’ve been on all of the surveys that have been done for vaquitas. We’ve done three of them, and I’ve had the misfortune of watching this species disappear from 600 of them around 1997 … and our last big survey was in 2015 and there were about 60 of them.

NATURE: According to a New York Times article from the end of April, there may only be a few individuals left. Would you agree with that? Do we actually know how many vaquita are left? If so, how do we know that?

The recent New York Times article said there were only two to four individuals left last February, and that’s certainly not accurate. We don’t know how many there are now, although we’re remarkably good at monitoring this really rare and cryptic species.

I had the misfortune of being on the survey that went to the Yangtze River and failed to find the Yangtze River dolphin. We were there to try to take the last of them into protective sanctuaries. We were too late, and a species that has been here for 30 million years was already extinct. We came back with renewed fervor about improving our ability to monitor vaquitas. In 2008, we went out. We did another one of these big, expensive ships surveys. They cost about $3 million, and so we only do them every 10 years. With a critically endangered species, that’s just not frequent enough. We used their compulsive echolocating to be able to develop an acoustic monitoring method. We have a grid of about 45 detectors that we put out in vaquita habitat every summer. We get about 3,000 days worth of data.

NATURE: So you’re basically listening to them talk or find food.

We’re listening to them finding food, yes. I liken it to if you were below a stage and there were a group of Flamenco dancers that were tapping away above you and half of them walked off the stage. You’d be able to tell that just by the auditory clue that you’re getting half the number of detections. That’s basically exactly what happened between 2015 and 2016. We went out and did one of these big surveys in 2015. We estimated there were about 60 left. We continued with our acoustic monitoring, but now it was calibrated, and when we got half the number of clicks. We determined that there were half the number of vaquitas, which meant that last summer we were down to about 30.

That decline from 60 to 30 happened despite the fact that the government of Mexico had heeded our warnings from the acoustic monitoring, which detected this enormous decline. That was due to the resumption of an illegal fishery for a species called a totoaba, which is a big fish, also endangered. It’s swim bladder is worth a tremendous amount of money on the Chinese black market. Without the acoustic monitoring, we never would have known the extent of the consequences for vaquita. Mexico stepped up, put in a 2-year gill net ban, and everyone was very hopeful that that and stepping up enforcement, putting the Navy in charge, would make the difference and turn the corner for vaquitas.

Unfortunately, from 2015 to 2016, where we went from 60 to 30, was post-ban. So we haven’t seen any evidence that the decline of vaquita is slowing down. The Sea Shepherd Society has been out there pulling up illegal nets, and we are still seeing hundreds of illegal nets for this large fish, the totoaba, that are also killing vaquita. In fact, just in the last month, we had another five dead vaquita. We know that they are still declining out there and that when we go out to try to capture them that there will be even fewer than there were last summer.

NATURE: Let’s talk a little bit about gill nets, which are long vertically-hanging nets that ensnare any sea life that comes in contact and are the primary killer of vaquita. With the 2-year ban in place by the Mexican government, why haven’t they been able to stop this type of fishing?

Well, let me back up a little bit and say that gill nets are a global problem. They’re the greatest threat to marine mammals globally. They kill hundreds of thousands of marine mammals a year. We don’t have any positive examples where any government has been able to substitute alternative fishing gear for gill nets. It’s a very difficult problem.

Mexico is to be complimented for trying to bring regulations to bear on the legal fishery. They stopped legal fishing with gill nets, which are used for shrimps and other fishes, and compensated the fishermen to the tune of $72 million to stop fishing for a two-year period. The idea was that they would develop alternative gear so that the fisherman could still go out and make a living but not use the gill nets. It would have been the first positive example we have of doing something like this in the world.

But, meanwhile, we have this illegal fishery for totoaba that’s going on. To give you some idea of how tempting this is, it’s called the cocaine of the sea. It is more valuable than cocaine, and so the fisherman are willing to take risks. In this case, no one’s been put in prison. The fines have been relatively minor. They set the nets at night with no markers, and so you have this illegal fishery that is one of the big reasons for the decline of vaquita. It was going along at 8% and it jumped up to 34% per year. That was driven by this illegal fishery. Now you have a situation that’s tantamount to controlling illegal drugs, and we all know how successful governments are at doing that. On top of this sort of more technical problem, it’s also how these villages make their living. You have to have a tremendous amount of social change [for the practice to stop], and you have to have sustained governmental will and some real leadership to make it happen.

NATURE: Your group, which is called The International Committee for Vaquita Recovery, has recommended removing the remaining vaquita from the Gulf of California to save the species. How would this be done and how did your group come to this conclusion?

Well, it was hard for us to come to that conclusion. It’s a very drastic effort and one filled with uncertainties. We all understood, once we saw the results from the acoustic monitoring, that they were declining at 34% per year, that we weren’t winning with plan A and we had to get a plan B in order. The team, just a few weeks ago, finally admitted that the only way that the species is going to be saved was in this Hail Mary operation to try to take some animals, as many as possible, into captivity as quickly as possible.

There’s an effort that’s called Vaquita CPR, that’s Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery. It involves a host of different players and skills, players all the way from Hong Kong, all the way to Denmark and the Netherlands that are bringing all of these different skills, from veterinary care, and engineering, and all sorts of things that we haven’t had to deal with before, rapidly to the table. We’ve just secured enough funding that we can get the facilities ready because, of course, if we’re successful with capturing animals, we have to be able to safely take care of them. We’ve outlined a whole plan. We hope to go out in October and November and undertake the task of finding them, tracking them, catching them, and then taking care of them. All of those things are formidable tasks.

NATURE: Do you know, at this point, how they would be held? Would they be sequestered from the rest of the Gulf or would they be completely separated?

Well, let me back up a little bit and talk about the finding and the tracking, because that part is interesting in and of itself. We plan to go out in the summer when we usually do the acoustic monitoring, do a full acoustic effort to pin down where the animals are, how many there are, and where they’re spending their time. Then we’ll go out with more than just one visual vessel, three visual vessels this time, to not only find these needles in the haystack, but to track them.

In order to give us the best chance possible of following these really small, solitary animals, we’re going to be using Navy dolphins. The dolphins are being trained to follow porpoises so that we can keep track of where the porpoises are going and then be able to run nets around them and capture the animals. That involves specialized nets, specialized skill sets from several parts of the world.

Then what we hope to do, initially, is to have tuna pens that are right out there next to the capture operation [that the vaquita can be held in]. I’m sure it will be a very exciting thing for a vaquita to be handled. No one has ever handled one before. The first thing that the veterinarians will have to determine is whether they’re like harbor porpoise that react very well to being handled and kept in captivity, or like a Dall’s porpoise, which is a porpoise that lives out in the open ocean. When you capture Dall’s porpoise, they just start to go into shock and they just don’t react at all well. We don’t know what they’ll be like. We’re hoping that because they’re shallow coastal water animals like harbor porpoises, that they’ll behave like that. Nevertheless, we’ll have these big, floating, open-ocean tuna pens right there so that we can put the animals into these pens and make it as easy a transition for them as we possibly can.

Then, of course, the next step, if they do well there, is to see whether or not you can get them to eat dead fish. There’s a very steep learning curve for both the vaquitas and the veterinarians. Then if they do well there, we can transfer them to sea pens close to the village of San Felipe that will be able to have walkways that go into land, and then they’ll have pools on land for veterinary care on land as well.

NATURE: Would the ultimate goal be to set up some sort of breeding program that you could restore a certain number of individuals, or how would that work?

Well, the team realized pretty early on that, like all animals that are taken into captivity for the first time, you learn a lot from the animals early on. You need to learn the vaquitas’ needs before you get very far down into the planning details. I think the recovery team recognizes that this situation of the vaquita habitat is basically toxic right now and it’s not likely to change very quickly, and so we are looking at keeping these animals probably for decades. Of course, we hope that we can encourage them to make more baby vaquitas. There certainly has been reproduction in both harbor porpoises and finless porpoises, so we’re hopeful there, but I think the first year or so will just be learning from the animals what kind of habitat makes them happy.

NATURE: You are a scientist, so you have to remain somewhat removed from the things that you study. But do you feel hopeful about this situation? Do you think there is a way out, a way that the vaquita can survive?

Well, it is truly a Hail Mary situation, and I think we’re going to go out there and do our best for these animals. We’ve assembled a tremendous team of people to do that. We’ve had tremendous support from the government of Mexico to make this happen. That’s the most that we can do. As a conservation biologist, I think it’s really important to learn from these lessons, even the sad lessons. If you’re going to have a hope of saving other species, you have to take advantage of learning everything that you can from every one of your failures. We did that with the Yangtze River dolphin.

We certainly did not lack on the science for vaquitas, but I think one of the real lessons here is that as hard as it may seem, is this is not going to be a stand-alone situation. If you want to have dolphins and porpoises in coastal waters, we’re going to have to get serious about either really making some strong commitments to change human behavior, or we’re going to have to get a lot better at building the ark, taking these species and getting them through what we hope is a bad couple of decades in human development.