The U.S. Navy officially announced dolphins and their handlers will be used in an attempt to save what’s left of Mexico’s vaquita population this spring. the operation consists of two phases. The first step will be to locate the remaining vaquitas using the dolphins’ natural sonar. Once the endangered cetaceans are located, the handlers will attempt to capture the vaquitas and place them in floating pens in a bay in the Gulf of California, otherwise known as the Sea of Cortez. Once they place them in a safe area, scientists hope the individuals will breed.
However, the operation has its risks. First of all, the elusive vaquita population has only been studied since the 1950s, which gives scientists less to go on, as far as the individuals’ habits and preferences go. Secondly, the vaquita has never been held successfully in captivity, let alone breed in artificial environments. Lastly, officials fear that the few remaining females could die during the mission, dooming the entire species.
In theory, the mission could be a success. In reality, though, it could go either way. Nevertheless, Jim Fallin of the Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific and U.S. Navy Space announced on Tuesday, January 3rd that the dolphins’ participation in the mission is still in the planning stage. He then explained the role of the dolphins in the search and retrieve operation.
“Their specific task is to locate vaquitas, which live only in the Gulf of California”, said Jim Fallin.
Once the dolphins find the vaquita population, they would alert their handlers by returning to the boat from which they were launched. In the past, the U.S. Navy trained and used dolphins for multiple other tasks. One mission even involved locating sea mines.
The vaquita population’s number dropped to 100 individuals in 2014, following illegal fishing for their swim bladder, also known as totoaba, which is regarded as a delicacy in China. In spite of the marine officials’ efforts to save the remaining individuals by implementing a fishing ban, only 60 vaquitas survived until May 2016. Now, the expert fear that there may be only two dozen vaquitas left in the wild. Even though the rescue operation could prove highly successful, some marine experts disagree with the Navy’s approach. Instead, they believe the officials should expand and reinforce the ban in order to save the vaquita population.
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