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A controversial, last-ditch plan to round up the last remaining vaquitas—a critically endangered porpoise found only in the Sea of Cortez—may get underway this spring with the aid of U.S. Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins. The vaquitas would be placed in a protected enclosure while efforts are made to get illegal fishing in the area under control.
Their numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. There were 567 individuals in 1997, 245 in 2008 and just under 100 in 2014. The report puts a high probability on extinction within five years.
Vaquita refuge established in 2005 where gillnet fishing is prohibited.National Geographic
The Mexican government has been working with local fishermen to save the species. In 2005, Mexico established a refuge off San Felipe in the Gulf of California. Gillnet fishing was banned in the refuge. The government is spending $74 million to compensate fishermen and encourage them to use safer fishing methods.
For a time, it worked. Although the population continued to decline, it did so at a slower rate. Scientists hoped it would soon turn around and begin to recover.
But they didn't count on China.
The country's newly-minted millionaires stimulated a demand for dried fish bladders. Called fish maw, they are alleged to possess medicinal properties including the ability to increase fertility. The source of those fish bladders: the Mexican totoaba, a critically endangered fish found in the same waters as the vaquita.
Totoaba bladders are worth up to $5,000 per kilogram and can command as much as $100,000 on the black market in China, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency. They can be found at retailers in major Chinese cities as well as online sites such as Alibaba. Poachers often take their boats out at night, and use gillnets under the cover of darkness to round up as many totoaba as they can. The vaquita are merely bycatch, caught up in the nets where they often drown or die from stress.
Fish maw wholesaler in Shantou, China (c) EIAEnvironmental Investigation Agency
Details of the plan to save the vaquita are still being worked out.
Plans may involve using dolphins from the Navy Marine Mammal Program, which has studied, trained and deployed these highly intelligent animals since the 1950s. Dolphins would be used to help locate vaquitas. They would then be coaxed into lightweight surface gillnets. It's never been done before with vaquitas, but harbor porpoises in Greenland have been captured safely in a similar manner.
Rare Guadalupe fur seals are once again washing up in California's Bay Area in record numbers likely due to unusually warm waters threatening their food supply.
The East Bay Times reported that about 75 seals have been stranded around the Golden State with even more seals that have died in the ocean.
This is not the first time seals are washing up sick or dead off California's coast. Last year, about 80 Guadalupe fur seals surfaced. Forty-two were found dead and only 16 of the 38 found alive survived. The unprecedented occurrence led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare an
unusual mortality event for the seals.
The Sausalito, California-based Marine Mammal Center alone has already responded to 32 strandings this year, with some animals found dead, sick or emaciated.
"To put those numbers into perspective, during our 40-year history prior to 2015, the record number of Guadalupe fur seals we had rescued in any given year was five," the Marine Mammal Center wrote in a blog post.
Guadalupe fur seals are classified as " threatened" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. There are about 15,000 individuals left after being hunted to near extinction in the 1800s. They now primarily breed on Guadalupe Island, about 150 miles off the coast of Baja California. Healthy fur seals live to be about 20 years old but like many other creatures on Earth, Guadalupe fur seals have become victims of climate change.
Unusually warm waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean is one culprit behind the increase in strandings.
"As prey populations move away to cooler waters, mother fur seals have a harder time finding the food they need to nourish themselves and their pups," the Marine Mammal Center said.
To study the animals, mammal center researchers attached satellite tags to all 25 of the Guadalupe fur seals it released over the last two years. The researchers were surprised to learn that the pups swam north into waters between Oregon and British Columbia.
“We were surprised to see animals this young traveling so far north, and some of these animals were traveling huge distances quickly," said Tenaya Norris, a marine scientist at the Marine Mammal Center.
CBS News station reported that "these miniature sea lions eat mostly squid but warming waters have the squid moving farther north making it hard for the little guys to find food."
Watch their report here: