On Friday, VaquitaCPR, the $5 million last-ditch effort by the Mexican government and conservationists to capture a rare porpoise called the vaquita, will formally announce the end of the project. The team captured two vaquitas: One, a calf, had to be released because it was stressed; the other, an adult female, died before it could be released. Since that death on 5 November, the 67-person team stopped trying to capture this diminutive cetacean. Instead, it has focused on trying to get detailed photographs of the 15 or so animals that still exist in the Gulf of California, their only habitat, so they can keep better track of the animals.
Continually plagued by bad weather, the project was halted because the vaquitas reacted poorly to being placed in the sea pen designed to house them. That persuaded researchers that capturing the animals was not worth the risk. “There’s nothing worse than having an animal die in your hands,” says Frances Gulland, the lead VaquitaCPR veterinarian and a scientist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.
The rescue attempt came about because illegal poaching of a fish highly prized for its swim bladder. The vaquitas become entangled and drown in the fishing nets. Despite efforts by the Mexican government to stop fishing where the vaquitas live, their numbers have dropped precipitously. With bringing vaquitas into captivity off the table for now as a solution, “what has to happen is the ramping up of enforcement” against poachers, Gulland says.