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Vancouver Aquarium involved in last-ditch effort to save endangered porpoise

Conservationists hope the acoustic markers from the Vancouver Aquarium’s harbor porpoises can help them locate and save the endangered vaquita.

Researchers take acoustic readings of the harbour porpoises at Vancouver Aquarium.

Contributed/Vancouver Aquarium

Researchers take acoustic readings of the harbour porpoises at Vancouver Aquarium.

Research collected at the Vancouver Aquarium could play a pivotal role in a last-ditch international attempt to save the most endangered marine mammals on earth.

The vaquita is a porpoise off the coast of Mexico and California on the brink of extinction.

With their population dwindling between just 45 to 60 animals, the Mexican and American governments, along with conservationists and research groups, are taking radical steps to try to save the last of the species.

The plan includes trying to use navy dolphins to seek out the remains vaquitas in the wild, capture them and remove them from the Sea of Cortez (where ongoing illegal fishing is rampant and is responsible for the porpoise’s demise) until their natural habitat is safe enough from them to be reintroduced into the wild.

But like British Columbia’s harbour porpoises, vaquitas are small, elusive, shy and very hard to find in the wild.

So researchers from the National Marine Mammal Foundation travelled to the Vancouver Aquarium recently to take acoustic readings of its harbour porpoises – which are similar in size – to help teach dolphins how to recognize and track a vaquita.

“What they needed to do is come here with some fancy equipment and do some echolocation on the porpoise, creating what we call an acoustic marker, or a way to identify characteristically what a porpoise might look like to a dolphin or an acoustic instrument that would be used to detect them,” explained Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium.

While the aquarium’s role in the project, called VaquitaCPR, is a minor one, Haulena says it was important to allow researchers access to its animals.

“Even in my lifetime, we’ve seen some cetaceans disappear, the most recent was 2006 where the Chinese river dolphin was declared extinct and it had a lot to do with human activity,” he said. “A lot of us looked at each other and said, ‘Look, why didn’t we do something?’ A lot of these animals are disappearing directly because of what we, as humans, do and it’s time to do something. It is a very drastic situation and it’s going to need a drastic solution.”

An endangered vaquita porpoise.

Contributed/CIRVA

An endangered vaquita porpoise.

While other endangered animals have been successfully removed from their habitats and then re-introduced in the wild when safe, Haulena says it’s never been attempted with a marine mammal species before.

 “Unfortunately, the scenario is that there are more animals of certain species that live in zoos and aquariums than those that live in the wild right now – tigers, some rhino species. We’re talking big animals that are being incredibly threatened in the wild,” he said. “I think we’re going to see more and more of this thing unless we can change a lot of big habits very quickly. In the meantime, if we don’t do something now, those species are gone forever.”

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