International Conservation Project Involving Texas State Aquarium Captures Vaquita for First Time Ever

November 28, 2017

An international effort to save the vaquita, a critically-endangered porpoise with fewer than 30 remaining in the wild, has marked a major milestone with the capture and release of a juvenile vaquita – the first-ever case of the animal being successfully collected and cared for.

The vaquita population, which resides only in Mexico’s Gulf of California, has plummeted in recent years due to drowning in illegal fishing nets. In a last-ditch attempt to save the vaquita, a coalition of conservationists, scientists, and animal care experts from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) has formulated a plan to round up the few remaining vaquitas and place them in a protective seapen. There, vaquitas can be scientifically observed and might even be able to breed while being safe from manmade threats in the wild. After years of preparation and over a week of field operations, the Vaquita Conservation, Protection, Recovery (CPR) project located and rescued a young vaquita on October 19 and collected tissue samples before placing the approximately six-month-old calf back into its native habitat. Although the vaquita was released after a short time, its rescuers were able to acquire crucial information that could be a major help with vaquita conservation. The calf’s rescue has also raised hope among participants that more vaquitas can be successfully rescued and relocated, and that one day, the vaquita population could rebound.

The Texas State Aquarium has made saving the vaquita one of its top conservation priorities for several years. The Aquarium made a lead gift in 2016 to develop a Conservation Action Plan for the species, and has donated over $75,000 to date and encouraged other aquariums and zoos to donate as well.  Over $1.2 million has been raised since the first appeal. TSA is also raising awareness for the vaquita’s plight through signage and social media and at an annual event, International Save the Vaquita Day. “It’s important for us, as a wildlife conservation focused institution, to step in and lead this effort to save from extinction the most endangered porpoise on earth,” explained President & CEO Tom Schmid. “If we don’t do it, no one else will.”

In addition to strong financial support, TSA is also directly involved in VaquitaCPR by contributing its skilled staff to the partnership’s team of experts. Emma Gilbert, TSA’s Curator of Marine Mammals, has assisted with recruiting and coordinating other marine mammal experts and will soon travel to Mexico to participate in rescue efforts. Since saving the vaquita involves placing them in temporary captivity in a specially-designed seapen, the expertise of AZA zoos and aquariums has been crucial to the project’s success so far. The majority of knowledge about dolphins and porpoises comes from observing them in zoos and aquariums, and animal care staff are highly-knowledgeable on marine mammals’ unique anatomies, diets, intelligence, and more. Gilbert, a 14-year veteran of the Aquarium’s Dolphin Bay team, brings 18 years of marine mammal care experience to VaquitaCPR, and is helping rescuers to better understand the vaquita and how to humanely and safely rescue them.

Field operations to rescue the vaquita are scheduled to continue for several more weeks. By simply visiting the Aquarium, guests are contributing to this vaquita conservation project, since a portion of their admission is donated to VaquitaCPR through the TSA’s Wildlife Care, Conservation, and Research Fund. To donate directly to vaquita conservation, guests can also give at VaquitaCPR.org.

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