As 'Smirking' Porpoise Nears Extinction, US Sends in Military Dolphins

The vaquita, or 'little cow,' is caught up in fishing nets and insatiable thirst from China
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 6, 2017 7:03 AM CST
As 'Smirking' Porpoise Nears Extinction, US Sends in Military Dolphins
In this Feb. 1992 file photo released by Omar Vidal, a female vaquita marina porpoise lies dead after getting entangled in a gillnet on El Golfo de Santa Clara beach in the upper Gulf of California.   (AP Photo/Omar Vidal, Proyecto Vaquita, File)

The world's smallest porpoise is also ever smaller in number, its population decimated in recent decades thanks to what the Washington Post describes as "a cruel mixture of fishing nets and economics." The vaquita, or "little cow," has gotten tangled up in fish nets since World War II, when fishermen began to seriously hunt a species of sea bass called totoaba. The porpoise, known for sporting a little smirk, is a marine mammal that would drown in the nets where they couldn't swim to the surface for air, and the appetite for totoaba has not diminished as the fish's bladder is used in Chinese medicine and considered a delicacy there, fetching more than $4,000 for just one. The Mexican government has frantically decided to try to capture the remaining survivors, now around 60, to try to save the species.

The US is joining in, too, offering up another marine mammal to help: the dolphin. The US Navy is training the so-called Seal Team 6 of dolphins, which already prowl around for underwater mines, to find the last surviving vaquita, which live between the Mexican mainland and Baja California Peninsula. "Their specific task is to locate," one expert says. "They would signal that by surfacing and returning to the boat from which they were launched." Unfortunately, the vaquita doesn't thrive in captivity, where they would need to remain to be safe from fishing nets. They also reproduce very slowly, with one calf every other year. Not everyone is on board with the plan, adds Live Science. "I don't like this idea at all," says a rep for World Wildlife Fund Mexico. "The risk of killing a vaquita while catching them is very high. With only 50 or 60 animals left, we can't play with that." (Dolphins appear to chat much like humans.)

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