Only Captivity Will Save the Vaquita, Experts Say

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TIJUANA, Mexico — It was not the first time Robert L. Brownell Jr. had seen a dead vaquita, the rare and endangered porpoise that was lying on the stainless-steel necropsy table inside the Tijuana Zoo on Monday. But it might well be one of the last.

Mr. Brownell, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had in effect discovered the porpoise, finding the first full, dead specimen in 1966. The world’s smallest member of the cetacean grouping, which includes whales and dolphins, the vaquita was the most recent cetacean to be recognized by modern science.

Now it may well become the latest to go extinct.

A high-level, bilateral panel of Mexican and American scientists met this week and is expected to announce that it believes efforts to save the animal have, essentially, failed. That announcement would mean that the only hope for the vaquita’s recovery would be to capture the surviving animals, if any can be found. Some of the scientists involved think the surviving vaquitas now number as few as two or three, and the latest two vaquitas found dead could even be the last ones — though it could take years to confirm that.

The vaquita has been described, by some of the few people who have seen one of the elusive porpoises alive, as the smiley-faced sea panda because of the dark outlines around its mouth and the black circles around its eyes. Its plight has drawn in celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Leonardo DiCaprio, and spurred cooperation among scientists and environmentalists, north and south of the border, in and out of government.

But the push has been imperiled by traffickers in the body parts of endangered species, unscrupulous fishermen and uneven enforcement efforts.

The problem can be traced to Chinese demand for a rare swim bladder from the endangered totoaba fish, which shares the vaquita’s range, in the northern tip of the Gulf of California. According to Mexican scientists, that demand has grown so much that prices for the bladders, used for a homeopathic remedy, rival the wholesale price of cocaine — as much as $10,000 per kilogram. Mexican officials and those from the Mexican-American panel, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, say Mexican drug cartels have been attracted to the trade by the high profits, and by the assurance that no fisherman has ever gone to jail for trafficking in swim bladders.

The nets used to catch the totoaba have trapped the much less numerous vaquita as well, to devastating effect. The Mexican government has banned the nets and even paid some fishermen not to fish in the vaquita’s range, but those efforts have not helped.

The results on the necropsy table at the Tijuana Zoo were only too evident. A 1-year-old female, a little over three feet long — full-grown vaquitas are nearly five feet — the porpoise had the imprint of the net in which she died stamped in six-inch squares on the grayish skin on her left side. On her right side, the skin was flayed off, probably as the porpoise struggled while drowning in the net.

The specimen was labeled PS7, because it was the seventh vaquita (scientific name: Phocoena sinus) to be found dead since a survey last summer, which determined that only 30 vaquita remained at the time. Then on Tuesday, PS8 was found by a NOAA scientist, washed up on a beach at the northern end of the Gulf. Scientists say there are likely to be many more undiscovered dead ones.

Budget cuts from the Trump administration may add to the vaquita’s woes. Both Mr. Brownell and the scientist performing the autopsy, Frances Gulland, a veterinarian from Sausalito, Calif., who is also director of the federal Marine Mammal Commission, now work for offices with zero budgets proposed for the coming year.

Not since the Yangtze River dolphin went extinct in 2006 in China has a cetacean gone over the brink. “We always thought that what happened in China would not happen here,” Dr. Gulland said. “We have the U.S. government’s prize laboratory and it’s on their doorstep. We have all these experts and scientists — we have everything. We thought, This won’t happen, we can fix this problem.”

She was referring to NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, a San Diego community just a short day trip from the northern Gulf of California. “It has taken on a huge symbolic importance.”

Alarmed about the new vaquita deaths, her commission paid to put out acoustic listening devices on a limited scale in February, focusing on where vaquitas were last found in 2016. The devices pick up the animals’ echolocating clicks, a form of sonar they use to navigate and communicate. By analyzing the number and frequency of the clicks, compared with previous years, scientists can calculate the number of animals in their fairly limited range.

In February two or three animals were believed to still be active, Dr. Gulland said. Since then four more vaquitas have been found dead, two in March and the two this week, one of which was recovered by a monitoring vessel from the Sea Shepherd environmental group.

Capt. Oona Layolle, who runs the group’s vaquita campaign, said their ships had recovered 183 totoaba nets just since December. She disagrees, though, with the vaquita panel’s proposals. “I don’t think by putting an animal in a cage you are saving it,” she said.

“There was another dead vaquita found yesterday,” said Barbara Taylor, a marine conservation biologist at the science center, and a member of the vaquita recovery committee, on Wednesday. “We’re all very depressed about that. The committee meeting will be making very clear that any vaquita that’s basically not taken out of its dangerous habitat is probably going to die.”

The extinction of the vaquita is a sensitive political issue in Mexico, where President Enrique Peña Nieto has made it an issue of pride that his country could save the animal. “The president has said that even if there is only one vaquita left, we will do everything we can,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a scientist who is in charge of the vaquita effort for the Mexican environment ministry.

The porpoise’s decline has been increasing exponentially, even as protection efforts have ramped up. In 1997, scientists counted 567 vaquitas; the number dropped by half in the next nine years, to 245. In just one year, the number halved again, to only 30 last year from 60 in 2015.

The vaquita may go extinct without mankind ever having gotten to fully know it. No live specimen has ever been taken. Because vaquitas are small and travel singly or in pairs rather than in big pods, following and observing their behavior is difficult. Tragically for conservation efforts, a female takes two years to produce a single calf, and two years to reach sexual maturity, so replacing each lost animal takes years. Already, vaquitas are so inbred that genetically, as Ms. Taylor said, “they basically all have the same last name.”

If the vaquita becomes extinct, Dr. Gulland said, it will have the distinction of being wiped out entirely through human action, even while humans were trying desperately to save it. “This is direct, human-caused extinction,” she said. “If there’s one lesson learned, it’s that we can’t manage humans.”

Mr. Brownell said this might be one battle the fishermen had won. “The fishermen just think, ‘Oh, good, if we can get rid of the last one, then we can get on and keep fishing.’” If that hasn’t already happened, many scientists now believe, it may soon.

Video | Mexico Vaquita