The U.S. Navy has confirmed that highly trained bottlenose dolphins will join the fight to save the critically endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the rarest of marine mammals and the smallest porpoise in the world.
Dolphins that were trained by the Navy's Marine Mammal Program to sniff out underwater mines and enemy divers will be deployed in the Gulf of California, the only known place where the vaquitas live. The cetaceans will locate the last few remaining members of the species in an attempt to capture them.
Critically Endangered Vaquitas
Extinction looms for the vaquita porpoises. About 97 vaquitas exist in 2014, but a report published last year revealed the possibility that the marine animals would go extinct because there are only 60 of them left in the world.
The declining population of the marine animal is due to the demand for the giant fish totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), also an endangered marine species, which is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and whose swim bladder is considered to have medicinal value. Illegal fishing of the totoaba accidentally traps the vaquitas in the gill nets, so the latter end up drowning.
Capture And Conserve As Many Vaquitas As Possible
The Mexican government has already suspended the use of gill nets in the parts of the gulf where the vaquitas live and provided monetary compensation for fishermen who ditch using the gill net. Vaquita porpoises, however, continue to die because of demand for the totoaba bladder, which can sell for more than $5,000 per pound.
Last month, the Mexican government launched a rescue mission to capture and hopefully conserve as many vaquitas as possible, an effort considered to be a potentially risky one.
Experts question the feasibility of the catch-and-enclose proposal because the vaquita has never been held in captivity. Mexico director of World Wildlife Fund Omar Vidal raised concern that captivity may even result in killing the last remaining members of the endangered species. The last-ditch effort, however, is pushing through.
Dolphins To Locate Elusive Vaquitas
This week, the U.S. Navy announced that dolphins will be deployed in the only known body of water where vaquitas thrive to find surviving members of the species and capture them. The mission is set to begin sometime this spring.
Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific said that besides using dolphins to locate and catch the vaquitas, the other goal of the mission is to determine how feasible it is to temporarily house the marine mammals in the Sea of Cortez, a protected area of the gulf where the animals may be able to safely breed.
The dolphins will use their natural sonar to find the elusive vaquitas. Bottlenose dolphins can find targets in deep and murky waters, an ability unmatched by existing technology. The Navy has sought the help of these cetaceans to conduct underwater searches.
"Their specific task is to locate," Fallin said. "They would signal that by surfacing and returning to the boat from which they were launched."