In an attempt to save the last of the vaquita porpoises, a team of international researchers and the U.S. Navy are turning to an unlikely ally: dolphins.
In the past, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has trained dolphins for a wide variety of tasks, including sniffing out underwater mines and searching for enemy divers. In this new project, the intelligent mammals will be deployed off the Gulf of California to both track down and help capture the endangered vaquita porpoise.
Vaquitas are a critically endangered species that the Mexican government has been unsuccessfully trying to save and protect for years. Despite past efforts, current projections show the mammals will likely become extinct by as early as 2022 unless something is done.
The decline of vaquitas is largely due to the gill nets poachers use to trap totoaba, a fish whose gall bladder is believed to have medicinal value in Southeast Asia. When fishermen roll out their nets they often accidentally catch — and kill — vaquitas in the process.
To save the species, researchers first need to figure out where they are. The dolphins will help with this because they can track down the rare mammals much better than researchers can.
“Their specific task is to locate,” said Jim Fallin of the U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, according to The Washington Post. “They would signal that by surfacing and returning to the boat from which they were launched.”
The goal of the mission, which is expected to start sometime in spring, is to figure out just how feasible it is to locate and catch the vaquitas. Then, the team will work to see if the species can be housed in a protection section of the gulf known as the Sea of Cortez.
While the proposal could help the species, there are some potential risks. This is because the vaquita has never been held in captivity and some researchers believe a confined environment could end up killing the last of the mammals. To monitor this, researchers plan to closely observe how the vaquitas react to capture and track the way they act while in captivity, The Christian Science Monitor reports.