An effort to save one of the world’s most endangered species, a miniature porpoise that lives in the Sea of Cortez, is slated to begin Friday, using some of the biggest brains in marine biology, binoculars and four aging female dolphins.
The creature in question is the vaquita, which has seen its population shrink from a few hundred a decade ago to fewer than 30 in recent months. The dramatic, last-ditch rescue bid is the first operation of its type aimed at a marine animal, though similar efforts were made to save the California condor when its numbers dwindled to 22 in the 1980s and the American bison a century earlier.
Though the methods will be unusual — involving dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy and a mass relocation of what’s left of the vaquita — the stakes are serious.
“We’re really at a turning point at the utilization of ocean resources,” said Dave Bader, director of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and one of dozens of people expected to go to the Sea of Cortez.
The vaquita is on the road to oblivion by mistake. Nobody — not the Mexican fishermen who accidentally kill them, nor the Chinese and Chinese-American consumers who like to eat the bladders of totoaba, a fish that’s about the same size as the vaquita and lives in the same sea — wants to wipe out vaquita.
But because totoaba bladders are prized as a delicacy in certain Chinese soups, and sometimes viewed as a medicine, the fishermen in Mexico have turned from simple spear fishing to gill net fishing as a way to capture as many totoaba as possible. The money is so good — dehydrated totoaba bladder can fetch $8,500 per kilogram — that a recent program by the Mexican government in which fishermen were paid to stop catching totoaba didn’t end the practice.
Whatever the motivation, the rise of gill net fishing for totoaba has done two things: It has reduced the totoaba population, and it has virtually wiped out the vaquita, which tend to get caught…