Effort may be more about saving the Navy Marine Mammal Program than saving vaquitas
SAN DIEGO, California––Trying to use U.S. Navy dolphins to help herd the last few dozen highly endangered vaquita porpoises into sea pens for captive breeding is practically a prescription for extinction, agree World Wildlife Fund-Mexico chief executive Omar Vidal and three longtime marine mammal captivity opponents who over the past 30-odd years have seldom agreed about anything else.
Vaquitas live only in the Colorado River delta area of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
“U.S. Navy-trained dolphins and their handlers will participate in a last-ditch effort to catch, enclose and protect the last few dozen of Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita porpoises,” reported Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson on January 3, 2017.
Vidal, Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector, and Campaign to End the Obsolete Navy Marine Mammal Program founder Rick Trout responded to the report with similar comments.
“Specific task is to locate”
Wrote Stevenson, “International experts confirmed the participation of the Navy Marine Mammal Program in the effort, which is expected to start this spring. Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy Space & Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific said that the dolphins’ participation is still in the planning stage. The dolphins will use their natural sonar to locate the extremely elusive vaquitas, then surface and advise their handlers.
“Their specific task is to locate” vaquitas, Fallin told Stevenson. “They would signal that by surfacing and returning to the boat from which they were launched.”
Vaquitas never kept in captivity
“Although the vaquita has never been held successfully in captivity,” Stevenson acknowledged, “experts hope to put the remaining porpoises in floating pens in a safe bay in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, where they can be protected [from illegal gill netting] and hopefully breed.”
Experts whom Stevenson cited include International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita chair Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho; Barbara Taylor, who heads the Marine Mammal Genetics Program at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and Sarah Mesnick of the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
“Veterinarians will evaluate vaquitas’ reactions and release stressed individuals,” Stevenson said. “Should a death occur, the team will re-evaluate the sanctuary strategy. The recovery team goal is to return vaquita from the temporary sanctuary into a gill net-free environment.”
Approach that failed to save the baiji
Rojas-Bracho has long favored the approach to saving vaquitas that is now being taken, modeled after efforts that failed to save the baiji, the Yangtse river dolphin. Native to China, the baiji has not been seen in the wild since the last captive baiji died in 2002. The baiji was pronounced officially extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2006.
While some baiji were captured for captive breeding, the baiji rescue program never had both a male and a female together.
“Catch-and-enclose is risky,” Stevenson acknowledged. “The few remaining females,” of whom there may be from eight to 25 of reproductive age, according to estimates made from using underwater listening devices, “could die during capture, dooming the species. Breeding in captivity has successfully saved species such as the red wolf and California condor,” Stevenson wrote. “But the vaquita has never been bred or even held in captivity.”
Vidal, in opposition to Rojas-Bracho, is on record stating many times that capture is “not a desirable or practical option for the vaquita,” as it would be difficult and probably not possible to capture and successfully keep enough vaquita to establish a captive breeding program.
“They would probably die in the attempt” to capture them, Vidal warned, even before anyone proposed using bottlenose dolphins to help do the capturing.
“Out of time”
“We have run out of time and we cannot afford more mortality,” Vidal told Jo Tuckman of The Guardian in 2014.
“We must strive to save this porpoise where it belongs,” Vidal has often emphasized, “in a healthy Upper Gulf of California.”
Capturing vaquitas, Vidal has repeatedly cautioned, “will divert the efforts needed to save this porpoise, ensure long-term sustainable livelihoods to local fishermen and their families [while replacing their reliance on gillnetting], and conserve the unique Upper Gulf ecosystem.”
Saving the Navy Marine Mammal Program
For the U.S. Navy, the focal issue may be not saving the vaquita, but rather, saving the embattled Navy Marine Mammal Program.
“The Navy public relations hacks know exactly what they’re doing: a publicity stunt,” O’Barry scoffed to ANIMALS 24-7.
Originally known for training the dolphins used in the Flipper television series (1964-1967), O’Barry has campaigned against dolphin captivity since 1970.
“They’re trying to greenwash the Navy dolphin program,” agreed Rector, who trained dolphins for the defunct Ocean World marine mammal park in Florida from 1969 to 1976, before also turning against marine mammal captivity.
“It’s a makework project for trainers who haven’t done anything useful since the Navy dolphin program began,” Rector fumed to ANIMALS 24-7. “Do you know what they’ve trained the dolphins to do? According to their publicity,” Rector summarized, “they can find lost divers. Do you know what you do if you’re a lost diver? You float up. You don’t just wait around the bottom for a dolphin to find you. This scheme to pretend the Navy dolphins are going to be doing something to save an endangered species is really just a scheme to justify some salaries and save a program that never should have started in the first place.
“They kill them for fun”
“And it’s going to cause the extinction of the vaquita,” Rector charged. “The Navy uses bottlenose dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are mortal enemies of porpoises. They kill them for fun. Dozens of YouTube videos from all around the world show bottlenose dolphins killing porpoises. You can’t train this behavior out of them. Even if you could, and you can’t,” Rector said, “nobody has ever kept porpoises alive for long in any kind of captivity.
“Do you know why SeaWorld doesn’t have porpoises? Because they die from capture stress. They don’t survive in tanks. That’s why nobody has porpoises on exhibit,” Rector emphasized.
“Poorly planned circus”
Trout, a former trainer for the U.S. Navy dolphin program in San Diego, was no less critical.
“Based on the little that is known about vaquita being very shy, unapproachable, and extremely poor candidates for capture, confinement or thriving in captivity,” Trout e-mailed to ANIMALS 24-7, “your concern for their safety and survival in this poorly planned circus is paramount to all but the participants, who are obviously reaching for any positive publicity they can.
“Naked attempt by the Navy”
“This is just another naked attempt by the Navy to justify over 50 years of wasting hard-earned tax dollars,” Trout charged, “abusing dolphins and sea lions and endangering national security.
“We rallied this past October,” Trout reminded ANIMALS 24-7, “to relaunch Operation Honorable Discharge to end the substandard care and housing of dolphins and sea lions next to Harbor Drive Bridge at Spanish Landing in San Diego. The 100+ marine mammals cruelly confined and dying there,” Trout said, “deserve far better sanctuary settings than the small boxes of boredom used now to imprison these marine mammal veterans.
“Now Navy is touting this bizarre publicity campaign to harass a long abused and dying population of helpless marine mammals,” Trout finished, “who simply need Mexican lawmakers to enact and enforce legal protection for the little vaquita dolphins from greedy unmanageable killing nets. The remaining vaquita survivors do not need to be rounded up and potentially be traumatized by other marine mammals and well-meaning but wholly unprepared pseudo scientists!”
Rarely on the same side
That O’Barry, Rector, and Trout are agreed about the deployment of Navy dolphins to try to save the vaquita is telling. While Trout and Rector often align on the same side of controversies, O’Barry had already often been at odds with both over a variety of tactical and philosophical differences when Congress in 1991 deemed the Navy Marine Mammal Program obsolete, after nearly 40 years of trying to find ways to use dolphins, sea lions, and other species for military purposes.
Eventually, under pressure to downsize the program, the Navy in 1994 agreed to release six surplus dolphins in what was envisioned as the prototype for a bigger program.
Both O’Barry and Trout were involved, despite having completely opposite approaches. O’Barry, a veteran of many dolphin releases around the world, favors a hands-off approach modeled after that of successful wildlife rehabilitators, encouraging dolphins to re-learn wild behavior for themselves.
Trout’s approach emphasized trying to teach the longtime captive dolphins wild survival skills.
To Free A Dolphin
O’Barry’s second book, To Free A Dolphin (2000), centered on the fiasco that followed. (See The Ric O’Barry prequels to “The Cove” and “Blackfish”.) Several months into the troubled project, anticipating federal reclamation of the ex-Navy dolphins as result of complaints by Trout and others, O’Barry released two dolphins. O’Barry maintains that the release would have succeeded if Trout had not lured them back with a Navy recall pinger.
Others claim both dolphins were injured and starving when recaptured. Of the remaining four ex-Navy dolphins in the program, two were returned to Navy duty. The last two were sent to the Dolphin Research Center, a near-by swim-with-dolphins facility.
O’Barry was heavily fined for releasing the two dolphins without a permit.
“Admission of defeat”
Observed Associated Press writer Stevenson, “The vaquita capture program is an admission of defeat for Mexico’s efforts to save the vaquita in its natural habit, which included banning gill nets and compensating fishermen in much of the upper gulf.”
The smallest and most endangered of the world’s 128 cetaceans––whales, dolphins, and porpoises––vaquitas when born are only about the size of a loaf of bread, growing to four or five feet in length, weighing about 120 pounds in full adulthood.
Distinguished from other small whales by dark eye-rings and dark patches on their lips, vaquitas were not scientifically identified in 1958, several years after their existence was first suspected from discoveries of skulls.
Their closest relative is Burmeister’s porpoise, found thousands of miles south, from coastal Peru to both sides of the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck, trained as a biologist, may have seen and mentioned vaquitas in his 1951 nonfiction account of a 1940 marine specimen collecting expedition, Log From the Sea of Cortez––or maybe not. Steinbeck’s eight mentions of porpoises include brief descriptions of two different species, one of them probably the vaquita, but are ambiguous.
Mexican National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change marine biologist Armando Jaramillo told Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2015 that the estimated vaquita population had fallen from 567 in an initial survey done in 1997 to the present 40 at most. About 80% of the losses are believed to have been vaquitas drowned accidentally in gill nets.
Known to be at risk since 1977
Even in 1997 vaquitas were long known to have been in trouble, identified as a species at risk by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 1977, added to the U.S. Endangered Species List in 1985, put on the IUCN red list of most endangered animals in 1989, and moved to “critically endangered” in 1990.
Meeting in Mexico in 1994, the International Whaling Commission endorsed Mexican efforts to protect the vaquita by restricting gill netting and otherwise protecting habitat.
But Daniel P. Costa of the Earth & Marine Science faculty at the University of California in Santa Cruz, California, argued as early as 1996 that “We need to learn how to breed and release smaller cetaceans such as the baji and vaquita. However,” Costa continued, “I would not put captive release programs at the top of my priorities. The important thing is to properly manage and protect the habitat of these endangered populations. There isn’t much point to a captive release program if there is no habitat left, or it is so degraded as to be useless for maintenance of a population.”
The British-based Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society in 2007 sought to make the vaquita a poster species for trying to slow or reverse global warming.
“As the seas warm, marine species usually head for cooler waters, but the vaquita has no escape route as its way north is blocked by land,” the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society warned in the nature conservation journal Oryx.
“When you have species with restricted habitats,” elaborated Whale & Dolphin Society international science director Mark Simmonds, “such as river dolphins or the vaquita, as climate changes the animals have nowhere to go. They cannot migrate out of trouble.”
Recognition that “The plight of vaquitas mirrors that of the totoaba,” as Washington Post environment Darryl Fears put it in December 2014, came slowly.
Totoaba, the largest of the drum family, are a slow-breeding fish weighing up to 200 pounds, once common in the Colorado River delta area, but declining for more than 80 years as an apparent result of the decline in fresh water flow that followed completion of Hoover Dam in 1936 and the Glen Canyon dam in 1956.
Between completion of the dams, which reduced the fresh water flow to as little as 4% of the 1910-1920 average, totoaba came into vogue as a food fish.
“In a frenzy of fishing in 1942,” Fears recalled, “Mexicans caught more than 2,000 tons of totoaba, also probably pulling up drowned vaquitas in nets that lingered in the water.”
However, because no one knew anything about vaquitas then, no one officially noticed or kept track.
Gill netting restricted
“When the totoaba fishery produced only 59 tons in 1975, strict regulations were put in place,” Fears continued.
In 2005 gill netting was restricted over about 200 square miles of the Colorado delta region, to protect both totoaba and vaquita.
Restricting totoaba netting appeared to slow the decline of vaquita as well, but circa 2010 both species crashed, coinciding with the discovery of Chinese chefs serving upscale clients that the swim bladders of totoaba taste similar to those of the Chinese bahaba. The bahaba, a much larger but distantly related fish native to the Chinese coast, had already been fished to the point of having been added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature red list.
Totoaba poaching accelerated, with vaquita a collateral victim. Dried totoaba swim bladders were moved north through the U.S. with the illegal drug traffic, then flown to Hong Kong, or were flown directly to Chinese destinations.
Recognizing the urgent need to escalate efforts to conserve both totoaba and vaquita, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto and his top military commanders in 2015 committed two new boats, light aircraft and drones to the effort to intercept gill-netting poachers, and extended the gill net prohibition area to 1,150 square miles, covering the entire area where vaquita are known to have been seen.
Buying back permits
The Nieto government also pledged to spend nearly $36 million per year through 2017 to buy gill nets and other equipment from as many as 806 small boats and buy back the permits from as many as 1,354 individual fishers working out of the villages of San Felipe and Golfo de Santa Clara.
But the two to three years the buy-out program is expected to take may be more time than the vaquita has left––especially if bottlenose dolphins are used to hunt them.