They are shy and elusive. They are tinier than a dolphin. And they are disappearing fast.
Despite heroic efforts, vaquita porpoises are dying at astounding rates in illegal fishing nets in their limited habitat in the northwestern corner of the Gulf of California. Last week, two more vaquitas were found dead. Fewer than 30 vaquitas are believed to be alive today, making them the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
But there is reason to hope. An unusual, diverse, international coalition of partners called VaquitaCPR and led by the Mexican government has worked feverishly to develop a bold, first-ever emergency plan to rescue the vaquita and place them in a sanctuary until illegal fishing is ended and their habitat is cleared of deadly gillnets.
This week, the Mexican government's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) announced a pledge of up to $3 million dollars to help launch the first critical phase of this emergency plan, including construction of a sea pen sanctuary. This is a significant financial commitment, but additional support from the public is vital to ensure the full implementation of this daring effort to recover a population that totaled 600 animals just 20 years ago.
"The challenge is staggering," says The Marine Mammal Center's Executive Director Dr. Jeff Boehm, who is leading the coalition's fundraising efforts. "How we respond to this emergency reveals who we are as a society. It sets precedent. We are asking the public to step up and donate what they can today at http://www.VaquitaCPR.org to match the Mexican government's generous funding. Additional donations are needed for veterinary care, staffing, and equipment and to ensure the program is not cut short because of lack of funds."
The critical need for support from the public to help save the vaquita has been reinforced by a number of celebrities, who are asking their fans to help fund the project, according to Dr. Cynthia Smith, Executive Director of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. The Foundation is one of the primary partners supporting VaquitaCPR. Dr. Smith thanks singer, songwriter, and actress Miley Cyrus, and actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Hemsworth, and Carolyn Hennesy. "Public outreach and awareness is so essential to this project," said Dr. Smith. "When people understand the world is about to lose something dear, they will try to make a difference."
The caring, compassion, and concern that prompted the development of the emergency plan to save the vaquita from extinction gained additional support today. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) announced its members have committed their support through its Save Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program and pledged to raise additional funds for VaquitaCPR.
In recent years, significant contributions have enabled efforts that have focused on assessing the population and educating the public about the devastating threat facing the endangered porpoise. The Mexican government has expended more than $100 million to date on these efforts and more. According to Debborah Luke, AZA's Senior Vice President for Conservation & Science, the AZA community has also contributed to vaquita conservation through its innovative SAFE program in the past five years.
The illegal gillnets killing vaquita are used to catch another endangered species, the totoaba. The fish's dried swim bladders fetch huge sums of money in China and Hong Kong, where it is believed the bladders help maintain youthful-looking skin.
"We are very grateful that both the Mexican government and AZA have pledged support and hope it will inspire others who share our determination to save the vaquita to donate," emphasized Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead researcher and head of Mexico's International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA). "Does the public care enough to help save the most endangered marine mammal in the world? I think so. We can't stand by and watch this precious resource disappear. It will be challenging, but we must try."
To support the rescue effort, learn more about the vaquita and for information about VaquitaCPR, visit VaquitaCPR.org
VaquitaCPR is led by Mexico's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT). 'VaquitaCPR' is dedicated to conserving, protecting, and helping this rare porpoise recover. The National Marine Mammal Foundation, The Marine Mammal Center, and the Chicago Zoological Society are primary partners in this extraordinary conservation effort.
Key collaborators in Mexico include the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC), the Mexican Association of Habitats for the Interaction and Protection of Marine Mammals (AMHMAR), and Acuario Oceanico.
European collaborators include Dolfinarium Harderwijk, Aarhus University, and Fjord&Baelt.
Additional United States collaborators are Duke University and the Marine Mammal Commission, with NOAA Fisheries providing technical expertise. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Dolphin Quest, SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium, the International Marine Animal Trainer's Association and the Association of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums are offering support and expertise to the program and assisting with fundraising.