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KPBS Midday Edition

Experts Remain Optimistic Over Effort To Save Vaquita Porpoise

Vaquita porpoises swim in the Gulf of California in this undated photo.
NOAA
Vaquita porpoises swim in the Gulf of California in this undated photo.
Experts Remain Optimistic Over Effort To Save Vaquita Porpoise
Experts Remain Optimistic Over Effort To Save Vaquita Porpoise GUEST: Barbara Taylor, marine biologist, Southwest Fisheries Science Center

This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. The last time I spoke about the endangered for purpose in the Gulf of California there were about 30 of the marine mammals believed to be left in existence. But now that number has plummeted with the recent New York Times article revealing some scientists believe only two or three remain alive. Efforts to save the Marine mammal continue and some local and spurts say there are still reasons to be optimistic. Once again Barbara Taylor a Marine mammal expert to the Southwest science Center is here to give us an update. Welcome to the program. Thank you so much. Do you agree that the population has dwindled to only two or three. We have no way of knowing that. We certainly hope it is not to that level. Our last measurement when we last spoke was last summer and we do will monitoring every summer so that has not been any monitoring in between. We had 30 last year and unfortunately the Sea Shepherd has put out there with the Mexican may be pulling up lots more net and I am sorry to say that just in the last month we have lost another five that they have actually found dead. So we know that there are fewer and we do not actually know how many. We will not until this summer. What is your ballpark that you might find when you do the count? From the summer of 2015 to 2016 we went from 6230. Lost about half. The fishing effort from what we can tell is about the same. We expect that we will probably lose another half of the population and will be down to 10 to 15 animals. We hope we are luckier than that the acoustic monitoring next summer will be what tells us the story. What is the status. There is a mask it -- massive effort by Mexico and the US to save the Vaquita. Has that failed? Not at all we are proceeding full speed ahead. We are purchasing pools and tense. There's been a huge commitment by this Association of zoos and aquariums. We have everybody lined up to go out there and we will of course be paying very close attention to the summer monitoring program to be able to locate the last of those animals and to give us the best chance of going out there and to give it with this team that ranges from experts from Hong Kong all the way to Denmark and the Netherlands. Of course with the help of the U.S. Navy dolphins we hope to be able to find the last of those individuals and take them into production. Tell us a little bit more about the U.S. Navy dolphins that are going to be involved in this mission. It is a very unusual tool and we don't know whether it will work. It will be a thrill if one Marine mammal can help save another. They have been trained to find harbor porpoises which is the closest living and swimming thing to at the cuter. Their first chance to of course experience one will be next October. The Navy has been preparing these old girls who are experts at finding swimmers to be able to go out there and hopefully what they will help us do is keep track of indicators because they generally swim in singles or repairs. They are very hard to say. So being able to track them and not frighten them with engine noise will be extremely helpful if in fact we can make it work. This dolphin tracking of the the cuter was supposed to get underway this month. Has now been delayed until October. Unfortunately we cannot come up with enough funding to be able to mount the enormous effort to be ready to take the animals into protective custody because of course it is not just finding them and catching them which is hard enough but you have to have a safe place to keep them. You have to have all the infrastructure set up with pools and filters and veterinarians and fish to feed them. So we could not make the May date. We are pushing very hard to be ready for the October date. If you are successful in capturing. Where will the animals go. Initially we are going to use some tuna pens and put them right out whether the kiddos are living so that we do not have to move them. And we can basically have a soft introduction to taking them out of the wild so they will be floating in the main habitat. That is the winter comes on winning them to be in a more protective area so there is some beautiful mountains that are right beside San Felipe. They are lovely protective mountains and we hope to put a floating cPanel right in front of San Felipe. These are dying because they're getting caught in fishing net set up to catch the fish that you were discarded talking about which is highly prized in Asian and brings in a good price for the fisherman. Mexico has tried to get their fishermen to stop the netting that has not been successful. Does the fact that the effort failed to keep them in the habitat have locations for other species. Yes it does. The nets that catch the fish of course the catcher which is an endangered species itself they catch whales they catch dolphins they catch white sharks including great white sharks. Basically the large predators of that ecosystem are being taken out by these nets. We do not like to take a whole level out of ecosystem. We do not know what is going to happen and it has prevented an alternative gear for the legal fishermen having this illegal activity. It is still our plan a that in order for them to exist long-term we have to solve the root problem which is killing their environment. We just have not had the time to do that. We have to resort to this Hail Mary effort of taking them out there habitat while these problems are solved. It took 30 years to even partially address the problem for California condors. This is not something that is new to conservation. Solving the problem takes longer than we often have for this species in the wild. I have been speaking with the Marine mammal expert for the fisheries science Center to thank you very much. Thank you so much for your continued interest in our little purpose.

Despite a recent report that there may be only 2 or 3 vaquitas left in the northern Gulf of California, a San Diego marine mammal expert said the effort is moving "full speed ahead" with a $4 million dollar plan to save the critically endangered porpoise from extinction.

Barbara Taylor, a marine biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said while there is no way to know for sure how many vaquitas are alive today, she believes there may be closer to 15 vaquitas.

"From the summer of 2015 to 2016 we went from 60 to 30. We expect we'll probably lose another half of the population. We'll probably be down to 10-15 animals. We hope we're luckier than that. But the acoustic monitoring next summer will be what tells us the story," she said.

The acoustic monitoring is part of a bi-national effort to find and capture the vaquita for captivity. The plan includes U.S. Navy dolphins that have been trained to track the vaquita.

"It's a very unusual tool and we don't know whether it's going to work, it would be a thrill if one marine mammal can find another," she said. "The Navy has been preparing them to go out there and hopefully what they'll help us do is keep track of the vaquita because they often swim in singles or pairs and they are very hard to see."

Taylor said she is also working to sequence the species' full genome, which may eventually help scientists breed the vaquita in captivity.

The vaquita is on the brink of extinction because of illegal gill nets used by poachers to catch endangered totoaba fish.

Taylor discussed the status of the bi-national plan to save the vaquita, Tuesday on Midday Edition.

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