Two captures with only frozen tissue samples to show for it
(Updates coverage of November 6, 2017.)
SAN FELIPE, Mexico––VaquitaCPR and SEMARNAT, the Mexican Secretariat for the Environment & Natural Resources, have indefinitely suspended attempts to bring highly endangered vaquita porpoises into a captive breeding program, Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune and CBS News 8 reported late on November 8, 2017.
“The VaquitaCPR operation formally ends Friday (November 10),” Dibble reported. “In the meantime, the scientists have returned to the water, photographing the remaining vaquita individuals for identification and conservation purposes. Any decisions on how to proceed [further] will come after a scientific review panels reviews the VaquitaCPR operation and the full necropsy results” on a female vaquita who died soon after capture on November 4, 2017.
How the “rescue” killed a female of breeding age
VaquitaCPR lead veteriarian Frances Gulland, from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, told Dibble that the vaquita initially “seemed very calm,” and remained calm during transport to a sea pen. “She seemed to be recognizing the sides and her swimming began to slow down,” Gulland said. “But after about an hour in the pen, she really slowed down and went rather limp.”
Released when VaquitaCPR staff recognized that she might not survive, “She took off at an incredibly fast, panicked-type swim on the surface of the water, Gulland continued. “She appeared almost like a flying fish,” but abruptly turned back toward the sea pen and died.
Wrote Dibble, “Despite extensive efforts to revive the vaquita by Gulland and other members of the veterinary team,” over the next three and a half hours, “she twice went into cardiac arrest, and was pronounced dead.”
The deceased female was the second vaquita porpoise caught for the attempted captive breeding program. She died 18 days after the VaquitaCPR team releasing the first vaquita ever captured, a nursing calf, because she appeared to be close to death.
“It’s very unfortunate. It’s very sad that the animal died. That’s all I can say,” National Marine Mammal Foundation founder Sam Ridgway told CBS News 8 investigative producer David Gotfredson on November 5, 2017. Ridgway, 81, also helped to found the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in 1961.
Reported Gotfredson, “Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Rafael Pacchiano, first announced the animal’s capture in a tweet on Saturday (November 4, 2017). He also tweeted a photo of the porpoise being held out of the water in a sling.”
Tweeted Pacchiano, “The vaquita captured by the VaquitaCPR team is a female adult of reproductive age. It is a great achievement that fills us with hope. It [the female vaquita] is under the supervision of veterinarians.”
VaquitaCPR posted an announcement of the November 4, 2017 vaquita death to Facebook about three hours after CBS News 8 disclosed the death.
“Caught and transported successfully” but died
“A mature female vaquita, not pregnant or lactating, had been caught and transported successfully late in the afternoon on Saturday in the Northern Gulf of California,” VaquitaCPR said, “and was taken to a specially modified floating sea pen known as El Nido, or The Nest.
“From the moment of capture,” VaquitaCPR said, “the vaquita was under constant care and observation for its health and safety. Marine mammal veterinarians monitoring the vaquita’s health noticed the animal’s condition began to deteriorate and made the determination to release. The release attempt was unsuccessful and life saving measures were administered. Despite the heroic efforts of the veterinary team, the vaquita did not survive.”
The VaquitaCPR statement also said “No conservation project like this has ever been done before,” but a more truthful claim would be that no conservation project like it has ever succeeded, since a similar effort failed to save the baiji, or Chinese river dolphin.
Bad weather had reportedly delayed further attempts to capture vaquita for nearly two weeks after the first vaquita to be caught, a six-month-old baby female believed to be too young to survive without her mother, was hauled aboard a capture vessel on October 18, 2017. Had the second vaquita captured been the mother of the first, and not been able to reunite with the baby, she most likely would no longer have been lactating by November 5, 2017.
Only 24 hours before the first vaquita capture, Pacchiano indicated in statements to a forum on tourism development that the VaquitaCPR project might have been undertaken less from the hope of saving the highly endangered species, of whom fewer than 30 were believed to exist when VaquitaCPR started, than from his ministry perceiving the opportunity to develop ecotourism around the captive breeding scheme.
“Shortly after capture,” reported Dibble of the Union-Tribune, just a few hours later, “the female calf was released back into the wild,” at “the same spot in the Gulf of California where she was found. Tissue samples from the animal will be shared with several institutions,” Dibble wrote, “including including the Frozen Zoo in San Diego, which will conduct genetic sequencing,” according to a VaquitaCPR media statement.
No details were given about what the “tissue samples” consisted of, or of how they were taken.
U.S. Navy dolphins
The first vaquita capture came about a week after the U.S. Navy deployed three bottlenose dolphins to the Sea of Cortez, in the Gulf of California, to help find and herd eight of the estimated last 30 vaquitas into sea pens.
Says the VaquitaCPR Facebook page, “At the request of the Mexican Navy, the U.S. Navy is playing an important but limited role … Navy dolphins have been trained to detect, report and approach vaquita, but not to interact with them. Once located, the Navy crew will pass the approximate location of the vaquita to the international conservation team. Navy personnel will not participate in any collection efforts, and will not participate in any of the animal husbandry associated with the care of any vaquita captured and held in a shore facility.”
While the VaquitaCPR program has been ballyhooed to mass media and the public as a desperate last attempt to save vaquita porpoises from extinction, informed critics have repeatedly warned ANIMALS 24-7 that it has practically no chance of success, and have alleged that it may be mostly makework designed to save the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.
Dolphins kill porpoises
Having been rendered obsolete by technology even before the 1990 Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program has lacked a clear mission for more than 30 years, and has been often decried as a boondoggle.
Among the most outspoken critics of the Vaquita CPR effort have been Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry and Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector, both of whom trained dolphins for entertainment facilities before turning to anti-captivity advocacy, and Campaign to End the Obsolete Navy Marine Mammal Program founder Rick Trout, who is himself a former U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program trainer, but has led opposition to the program since 1987.
All three have emphasized that bottlenose dolphins in the wild routinely hunt down porpoises, then batter them to death as playthings.
“Quit capturing them”
Even if the U.S. Navy bottlenose dolphins are kept far away from any vaquita, Rector in particular has emphasized, porpoises of all kinds are known to “stroke out” under the stress of capture. Porpoises have never been kept for long in captivity, Rector explains, because they simply do not survive.
“If VaquitaCPR really wants to keep the vaquita from dying out,” Rector told ANIMALS 24-7, “then the best thing they can do is to quit capturing them.”
Other critics of VaquitaCPR, among them World Wildlife Fund Mexico chief executive Omar Vidal and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, have repeatedly pointed out that has yet to secure the limited vaquita habitat in the Sea of Cortez, at the northern end of the Gulf of California, against the illegal gillnetters who in recent years have presented the greatest threat to vaquita survival.
The illegal gillnetters are chiefly working in pursuit of totoaba, an endangered fish species whose swim bladders are prized in parts of China as substitutes for the swim bladders of native Chinese fish species that are now nearly poached out of existence.
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, totoaba have declined 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. That put totoaba into a steep decline, even before the poaching pressure of recent years developed.
“Hundreds of vaquitas have been lost since 1997,” acknowledges VaquitaCPR.
Sea Shepherds “tense & busy”
Operating under the campaign names Operation Milagro and Operation Ghost Net, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has patrolled the Sea of Cortez to protect both vaquita and totoaba.
Posted Watson to Facebook about 12 hours before the November 5, 2017 vaquita death, “Today was very tense and busy for the crew of the Farley Mowat,” one of two Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels in the vaquita refuge area.
“Apparently, some Mexican fishermen decided to defy the Mexican government,” Watson said, “and blatantly began to illegally set their nets in the restricted vaquita sanctuary” by daylight, a change in tactics. “The Sea Shepherd crew, observing activity, launched a drone and found 10 pangas setting nets in the refuge. They contacted the Mexican Navy. With the arrival of the Navy, the pangas began to run and the Navy pursued.
Adding a fast patrol boat
“The Farley Mowat guarded one of the nets dropped by the poachers. Numerous pangas and their crews were arrested.
“Operation Milagro IV will begin in a week’s time,” Watson pledged, “and the Farley Mowat will be joined by the Sea Shepherd fast patrol boat John Paul DeJoria.”
Watson posted drone photos of “poachers illegally setting nets in the vaquita refuge, poachers failing to see our drone above them, and a “poacher discovering our drone, sending his regards prior to being arrested,” he said.
“Tourism is well-being”
Meanwhile, addressing an October 17, 2017 forum entitled “Tourism is well-being: towards a state tourist policy with a perspective to 2040,” Rafael Pacchiano in his capacity as Mexican Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, “stressed that President Enrique Peña has asked the Chinese government to help combat the illegal trafficking of totoaba swimming bladders, and to work together [with Mexico] to explore the opening of a legal market for this fish and its derivatives,” reported Fanny Miranda of the leading Mexican newspaper, radio, and television news chain Milenio.
Claimed Pacchiano, “There are more totoaba now than in 1940. The reasonable and very careful use of totoaba could generate at least double the economy that is being generated in San Felipe today, with a single fishing activity. This is also an important opportunity that can detonate opportunities for tourists who want to come to the area, first to know the vaquita, but also to return to sport fishing and the sustainable use of totoaba.”
The VaquitaCPR project, Pacchiano told the tourism forum, “is going to generate a significant tourist demand, because people are going to want to meet the vaquitas, they will want to know what the protection efforts are, and this is going to be an unbeatable opportunity for San Felipe, and for entrepreneurs who want to invest in San Felipe.”
No legal standing to stop a tourism project
Aquarium of the Pacific director of education David Bader posted to the VaquitaCPR Facebook page on October 23, 2017 that “Vaquitas will not be used as a tourist attraction. Ecotourism for the region including a nature center,” Bader acknowledged, “have been mentioned but nothing firm.”
Bader further acknowledged that “Working for the local communities to provide sustainable livelihoods is an essential action in the long term conservation plan.”
Bader did not acknowledge, however, that if Pacchiano decides using vaquitas as a tourist draw fits into a long term conservation plan,” VaquitaCPR will not have legal standing to say otherwise.