Sea of Cortez campaign may be more about saving the Navy Marine Mammal Program than saving vaquitas
SAN FELIPE, Mexico; SAN DIEGO, California––Purported knights errant sent to save a damsel in distress, the U.S. Navy dolphins Andrea, Fathom, Katrina and Splash on October 5, 2017 arrived in San Felipe, Mexico, on the east coast of Baja California, to hunt and help net at least eight of the last 30-odd of the highly endangered vaquita porpoise for attempted captive breeding.
The hunt for the last vaquitas is expected to take about a month.
Dolphins kill porpoises
Reported Mexico News Daily, “A team of scientists and veterinarians plans to transport the captured porpoises to a 46-square-meter pen at the new Vaquita Care Center, located in San Felipe. The four bottlenose dolphins were trained by the U.S. Navy in San Francisco where they successfully located specimens of harbor porpoises,” a somewhat disingenuous statement overlooking that bottlenose dolphins normally hunt––and kill––porpoises in the wild.
The real trick in deploying bottlenose dolphins to hunt vaquitas will be keeping the dolphins from killing the vaquitas once found, along with keeping the vaquitas from becoming traumatized past the point of adapting successfully to subsequent captivity.
Delivering damsels to the ogres
In effect, instead of the supposed knights errant sallying forth to save damsels in distress from imprisonment in ogres’ castles, the dolphin knights errant will be driving the damsels into the castles, into the ogres’ full control.
Continued Mexico News Daily, “Specialists said only the ‘less stressed’ specimens of vaquita will be transported to the center where medical and behavioral evaluations will be conducted to determine their suitability for holding in human care.”
This statement too is disingenuous, because there are no authentic “specialists” in handling captive vaquita, a species never previously taken into captivity.
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.
The proposed use of Navy dolphins to herd vaquitas into sea pens for captive breeding was revealed to the public by Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson on January 3, 2017. Summarized Stevenson, “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.”
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, who rarely all agree about much, 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. 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.
(See Witness to Extinction: How We Failed to Save the Yangtse River Dolphin.)
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 in October 2016,” 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!”
(See Flipper is NOT Rambo! Never was!)
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.
Captain Paul Watson says
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s
Official Position on the Navy Dolphin Vaquita Project.
Sea Shepherd is working in partnership with the Mexican Navy to defend, conserve, and protect the endangered Vaquita and the endangered Totoaba fish in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.
Sea Shepherd has deployed three vessels to the Sea of Cortez for this purpose. The Farley Mowat, the Martin Sheen and the Sam Simon.
Sea Shepherd crews are engaged in searching for poachers, gathering evidence on poaching operations, the detection and confiscation of illegal gill nets and longlines, and the rescue of wildlife from the nets.
Sea Shepherd is now engaged in Operation Milagro III. Hundreds of nets and longlines have been confiscated, dozens of poachers arrested and hundreds of animals rescued from the nets including a Humpback whale, sharks, turtles, and totoaba.
Sea Shepherd has spotted and documented sightings of Vaquita and three Vaquita bodies have been recovered.
The U.S. Navy has offered to use trained dolphins to locate and capture the remaining Vaquita and to hold them in captivity for a breeding program.
Although Sea Shepherd is sympathetic to the motivation behind this program, Sea Shepherd does not support this approach program for the following reasons:
· Removal of a species from its natural habitat is not the solution. Both the species and the habitat must be protected as one.
· Sea Shepherd is 100% opposed to the captivity of cetaceans.
· Vaquitas have never been caught and held in captivity and considering the shyness of the species and the fact that little is known about the species, our concern is that the stress of capture and captivity may be harmful and possibly lethal to their survival.
· Removing the Vaquita from its habitat will open the doors to more intensified efforts to capture the endangered Totoaba fish. The bladders are worth some $20,000 a kilo in the Chinese market and this is a powerful incentive for illegal activity.
· There is no evidence that the Vaquita can be successfully bred in captivity and considering the few that remain, it is our position the risks are unacceptable.
Sea Shepherd’s position is that the Vaquita and the Totoaba species and their habitat must be protected as one.
Sea Shepherd proposes the following solutions:
· Stricter enforcement against illegal fishing, more patrols, tougher penalties.
· A total moratorium on all commercial fishing operations and a total ban on gill nets and longlines to be accompanied by a subsidy program to compensate local fishermen.
· Lobbying efforts by Mexico, the United States and international NGO’s to convince China to outlaw Totoaba bladders.
· Restoration of the habitat by opening dams on the Colorado river to allow drainage into the Gulf of California which we believe has been a factor in the decline in Vaquita populations.
· The Vaquita Refuge should be set aside as a totally protected marine sanctuary.
Although Sea Shepherd will not participate in any capture and captivity program, Sea Shepherd is committed to working with the Mexican government and other NGO’s to uphold conservation laws and regulations and to continue a program of interception of poaching activity and further confiscation of nets and lines.
Sea Shepherd is prepared to provide more vessels and crew to expand the area of protection and Sea Shepherd is firmly committed to any and all efforts to prevent the extinction of the Vaquita species except for any initiative that involves capture and captivity of the Vaquita.
Jamaka Petzak says
Maddeningly and tragically, human desires will always take precedence over the needs of members of our fellow species; like the Florida panther whose habitat is being overdeveloped as they themselves dwindle to extinction, the vaquita seems destined to fade away so that the US Navy can pursue its interests, and this would seem to be one of the very worst times politically speaking to try to advance the agenda for survival of ANY species, perhaps ultimately including our own. Nevertheless, I am grateful for your coverage of these events and for Sea Shepherds’ efforts to save the vaquita, totoaba, and habitat.
Rick Trout says
To supporters of the Vaquita “Rescue” Project:
This project is absolutely last minute, devoid of the years of prep that was done prior to reversing the dwindling condor population.
Relying on the U.S. Navy & SAIC’s historically embarrassing record of drowning more dolphins in captivity & during capture than the entire captivity industry puts you in bed with a very abusive or maybe just negligent crowd who refuse FOIA requests to see what if anything they’ve done through after incident corrections to prevent further negligent care, handling & confinement.
This project is doomed to failure without:
#1 – Addressing, debunking & outlawing the base cause of voodoo medicine for corrupt elite societies,
#2 – Redirecting economics towards appreciating & CONSERVING the Vaquita SPECIES & THEIR HABITATS (which many say is their mission!?),
#3 – Bolstering the Sea Shepherd, Mexican Navy & local sea port pilots to better & more thoroughly police & promote this rare habitat; a far preferable plan to emptying it out to sterilize it for posterity.
I too want the Vaquita to survive & thrive. The players, the plan & nearly all but captive display prospects are flawed self promotion & may only help the other robbers & rapers of this habitat in accelerating the loss of the final Vaquita or at best their transfer to profiteering imprisonment of “rare specimens” for public display. That is a very sterile boiling down of your mission and a short money making enterprise this near sighted country of America the Pillagers has exported overseas in the past 70 years, hardly a ripple in the longevity of most marine mammals on this planet.
In short order, unless your mission & scrutiny change, you may find yourselves ushering in more than just the extinction of the Vaquita.
Be careful what you wish for & with whom you go to bed.
Good Luck, hope you’ll be writing me that I was wrong for the Vaquitas sake.
Jane Cartmill says
I attended a lecture by Barbara Taylor, cited in this story as one of the lead people in this enterprise. It was clear that almost everyone involved is from the captivity industry,and despite her assurances to the contrary, I fear that IF any vaquita survive capture, it will not be long before they will be put on public display – especially because they are perceived to be “cute”. I agree with Rector and Trout – this is a publicity stunt for the Navy as much as anything. Perhaps the Navy thinks this will counterbalance their undersea, whale-killing detonations. In fact, the number of Vaquita still living is probably too small to effect successful breeding under any circumstances.
Leave them alone and concentrate on efforts to stop the totoaba poaching.
Laurice Dee, Ph.D. says
I have always been very much in agreement with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society [SSCS] on the Vaquita issue. LEAVE ‘EM ALONE!
The enforcement of the gillnet ban needs to be beefed up with the increasing patrolling of the Vaquitas’ home waters, especially at night. Night goggles – typically used by the military pilots to spot enemies on the ground – can be used for this purpose. Penalties need to be stiffened up as well. Mexico, China, and the USA need to band together to crack down on the trade of the totoaba swim bladders.
If the above actions had been carried out successfully, perhaps there would be no need for the VaquitaCPR team to go out and capture some Vaquitas so as to save their dwindling population.
I am very deeply concerned about the capture itself. Vaquitas have never encountered humans nor have they been touched by human hands. There’s a risk of death once they are caught due to capture shock. Numerous dolphins – including and especially Pantropical spotted dolphins – driven into the cove in Taiji, Japan experienced capture shock that led to their untimely deaths during or shortly after their captures.
The VaquitaCPR team has no idea which Vaquitas they’d capture and if they’d be perfect candidates for breeding. Who knows, the team may end up catching just the males, the old ones, the young ones, or a mixture of the ones that are not able to mate.
A small Vaquita group – consisting of a few that swim together as a ‘family unit’ – faces the risk of being broken up when one is successfully captured while his/her family members scurry to the depths only to remain unseen. I believe the VaquitaCPR team has no place to drive the little porpoises into before capturing them, unlike the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, Japan and the Grind in the Faeroe Islands.
The VaquitaCPR team could try, but the risks may far outweigh the benefits and could decimate the population even further!
It would be so great if Andrea, Fathom, Katrina, and Splash could speak. Upon finding the elusive porpoises, these four female Navy dolphins could tell the critically endangered Vaquitas to run for their lives so that they’d be extremely difficult to capture!
LAURICE DEE, Ph.D.