A vaquita porpoise surfaces. VIVA Vaquita estimates less than 50 vaquitas remain. Photo ©Tom Jefferson
At the recent CIRVA meeting in November 2016, the current status of the vaquita and the conservation measures intended to save it from extinction were reviewed and assessed. It is clear that efforts to prevent extinction wholly through ‘in situ’ measures are simply not working (note – ‘in situ’ means conservation within the natural habitat, while ‘ex situ’ means conservation outside the natural habitat). Despite the laudable efforts of many people, and unprecedented attention from the highest levels of the US and Mexican governments, the species is heading toward extinction at a rapid and accelerating rate.
It is now apparent that the only chance we have of preventing extinction in the next few years will need to involve ‘ex situ’ conservation measures as well. Current plans are to capture and move a small number of animals to sea pens in the vicinity of San Felipe. The plan may or may not involve such things as captive breeding, and capture/tag/release, and does not involve trying to capture all remaining animals. While of most us in ¡VIVA Vaquita! have concerns about cetaceans in captivity, we feel this case is different. This is not an ideal situation, but without such extraordinary efforts, there is virtually no chance for the vaquita to survive even the next few years.
Recognizing this fact in no way diminishes the need to work to create a completely-gillnet free zone in the vaquita’s range in the upper Gulf of California, and to develop sustainable and vaquita-safe fishing methods for the region. Such measures will be needed for the long-term preservation of, not only the vaquita, but also many other species in the region. But in the short term, they are not enough.
The vaquita ‘ex situ’ conservation efforts are being overseen by CIRVA, and involve bringing in top experts from around the world to ensure that the program is run in a way that minimizes risk to the animals, and provides the best possible benefit for the species’ persistence. As such, and after much discussion and consideration, ¡VIVA Vaquita! supports these ‘ex situ’ efforts.
However, we are not in support of moving porpoises to commercial facilities. Also, we believe that if the capture or captivity proves too stressful, according to the on-site veterinarians, the animals should be immediately released back into their habitat. Any holding of the porpoises in an on-land facility should only take place during emergencies caused by hurricanes or other similar pending natural disasters. If the capture and captivity plan is successful, then we expect, within two years, that a plan be developed to perpetuate the species, move them to a larger and more natural sanctuary, and eventually reintroduce them into their natural habitat. With these conditions, we pledge our assistance, where needed, in making this program a success.
Listen to the Eyes on Conservation podcast with ¡VIVA Vaquita! director Tom Jefferson for more information on the issue of 'ex situ' conservation of the vaquita
Photos taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08 from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturale Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE).