Should we breed the vaquita in captivity?

For as long as we have known about the vaquita, gillnets have been killing more individuals than are being born. The upper Gulf of California has been a danger zone for the species ever since humans started fishing there, and unfortunately, vaquita don’t live anywhere else.

Yet.

Even though gillnets are now permanently banned in the vaquita’s range, there will still be illegal fishing if compensation and/or nighttime enforcement issues are not fixed immediately. These are indeed desperate times. So desperate, in fact, that no option is off the table when it comes to salvaging this species.

The idea of ex-situ conservation (captive breeding) for the vaquita has not been given much thought, until recently.

Here is ¡VIVA Vaquita!’s official position statement on the issue:

“The issue of possible live-captures and ex-situ conservation (generally known as captive breeding) of the vaquita has recently been much talked about and debated. This results from the 2016 CIRVA report, which for the first time, recommended evaluation of the prospects and steps needed for captive breeding of the species, as part of the conservation plan. This is a very complex issue, and there are a variety of different views within our organization on this proposal.

After detailed discussion, ¡VIVA Vaquita! has come to a consensus. Due to the undeniable fact that the current efforts to stop the decline of the species (however, well-intentioned) are simply not working, we are not opposed to evaluating and considering ex-situ conservation measures for this species. However, we emphasize that the primary focus and priority for long-term conservation of the species must be in-situ—that is protection and recovery of the species in its natural habitat. That can only happen with a permanent and complete cessation of all gillnet fishing within the species range. This is an absolute pre-requisite to any attempts to save the species, and must remain the top priority. Any work towards captive breeding efforts must not in any way decrease the focus, resources, or funding applied to maintaining and effectively enforcing the gillnet ban.”

We will not allow the vaquita to go extinct, which means if captive breeding is the only option left, we will try our best to accomplish it. There is still a long way to go in terms of determining whether or not it would be safe for the animals (some porpoise species do well in captivity), or how we would do it (underwater pen in the Gulf, tank on land, etc.), but if necessary, we could have captive vaquitas by next year. Too much later, and there may be no vaquitas left to save.

To learn more, check out these in-depth articles:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/scientists-mull-risky-strategy-save-world-s-most-endangered-porpoise

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2016/jun/08/vaquita-captive-breeding-ex-situ-panda-porpoise-extinction

And listen to this interview with the always-wonderful Barb Taylor:

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/how-can-we-keep-the-endangered-vaquita-from-vanishing/

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Reflecting on experience

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
John Dewey

Lately I have been thinking a lot about saving the Vaquita…I mean really saving the Vaquita, not just blurting out words and ideas without even fully processing what we are saying. Saving a species has become such a widely used term that we sometimes forget to dig all the way down to the roots of the problem. As the quote above by American philosopher John Dewey states, we need to reflect on our experiences to learn something. In this case, our experiences would be conservation success and failure stories. I decided to look for patterns in the successful species recoveries, as well as in the ones that were not so lucky, to determine what can and should really be done to save the Vaquita.

This article (please read it now) was perfect for this type of research. It is a list of the “top 10 conservation successes and failures,” from 2006. The date does not really matter here, because information about something that happened in, say, 2000 will not change between 2006 and 2013, similar to a history textbook. Here are the successes from the list:

Reforestation of China
The American Bison
Southern White Rhino
Wildlife Reserves Cover 10% of the Earth’s Land
Golden Lion Tamarin Monkey

So what do all of these success stories have in common? The answer is we actually did something. We tried. Scientists started captive breeding programs. Conservationists created protected areas. We made sure we protected the species with every last ounce of energy we could. A captive breeding program unfortunately could not work for the Vaquita because they don’t survive in captivity, and even if they did, they would be virtually impossible to capture in the first place. And don’t even get me started on the whole SeaWorld issue (I am getting Blackfish for Christmas). Our main goal to help the Vaquita should be to really try, and I don’t just mean conservationists. Everyone, fishermen, public figures, governments, and the citizens of the world need to band together to save a species that cannot save itself. We already have multiple protected areas for the Vaquita, which is a great start, but as I’ve said many times before, the areas do not completely cover the porpoise’s full range. And enforcement on these protected areas is not as strong as it needs to be, which is hopefully changing. Fortunately, animals with smaller populations and more dangerous habitats than the Vaquita have come back from the brink of extinction, so it is still not too late.

Now let’s look at the failures to learn what to avoid in our mission to save the Vaquita:

Destruction of the Amazonian Rainforest
Saiga Antelope
Northern White Rhino
Worldwide Amphibian Declines
Orangutan

So what did we do differently? As you might expect, the exact opposite of what we did in the successes: absolutely nothing. As with basically every endangered species on the planet, these animals are being destroyed by us humans, much like the Vaquita is. Yet we did not take the responsibility of helping our innocent victims. Many of these failures are due to a lack of understanding or control over the threat. Luckily, the Vaquita is in a perfect habitat with only one problem: accidental entanglement in gillnets. Bycatch is a much easier-to-deal-with threat than poaching or trapping because it isn’t even intentional, and climate change because it is a direct threat. With the right teamwork, the Vaquita can definitely be saved.

So in recap, we learned that we can save the Vaquita by, well, saving it. We mustn’t sit around and hope it survives.

We need to take action now, before the Vaquita itself becomes an experience to reflect upon.