The Plan to Rescue a Nearly Extinct Porpoise Goes Terribly Awry

Fewer than 30 vaquitas are left in the world, and one died when scientists tried to catch it for a captive-breeding program.

A woman carrying a vaquita replica
A young woman carries a papier-mâché vaquita during an event in front of the National Palace in Mexico City. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP )

To understand the lengths Vaquita CPR has gone to rescue vaquitas from the brink of extinction, consider that the team mobilized not just fellow humans but also four U.S. Navy–trained dolphins.

Andrea, Fathom, Katrina, and Splash—chosen for their “gentle nature”—arrived in Mexico in early October. Since then, they have assisted in the delicate task of locating vaquitas, a species of porpoise of which fewer than 30 are left in the world. They are finding vaquitas because the Mexican government-led Vaquita CPR project wants to capture and breed them away from the dangers of the wild.

This is an incredibly risky plan. When they set out, no one had ever raised vaquitas in captivity or successfully mated them or even, to start, captured one alive. “Vaquitas are exceptionally shy,” says Barbara Taylor, a marine-mammal researcher with NOAA, who is also involved in Vaquita CPR. And the 30 or so surviving vaquitas might be the most elusive of all; they are the few who have managed to avoid the fishing nets that have entangled and killed the rest of their species.

In late October, the team managed to catch its first vaquita. That was the good news. The bad news was that the young vaquita quickly became distressed and had to be released. But the team tried again, and on Saturday, Vaquita CPR had caught an adult female. Things again got worse and quickly. The team decided to release the vaquita, but she died—seemingly of cardiac arrest, though it’s too early to say for sure.

The scientists always knew this was a theoretical risk, but here was an actual dead vaquita on their hands. “A devastating setback. There are no words to express how sad I feel,” Andy Read, a marine conservation biologist on the Vaquita CPR project, wrote on Twitter. If the team can’t keep vaquitas alive in captivity, then they can’t breed vaquitas. And if they can’t breed them, then the species will almost certainly die out in the wild. This might just be the end.

What makes it worse is that some of Vaquita CPR’s marine biologists had experienced this before—a fruitless field expedition, the dawning realization that it was too late—and they had vowed to never let it happen again.

* * *

When I asked Taylor to tell me the history of Vaquita CPR, she began with the story of the baiji, a rare white dolphin that lived in China’s Yangtze River. Like the vaquita, it was becoming entangled in fishing nets and dying. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the number of baiji fell precipitously, but lack of survey data obscured the extent of the problem. In 2006, scientists finally convinced a wealthy Swiss man to fund a six-week expedition in search of baiji in the Yangtze River. Taylor was on that expedition. They hoped—and this plan will sound familiar—to gather information so they could later capture baiji and breed them in a reserve before returning them to the river.

But they found nothing. They didn’t see or hear a single baiji. “This species that had been on planet Earth for 30 million years was gone in an eyeblink,” says Taylor. The team concluded the baiji was functionally extinct—the first documented megafauna extinction in half a century. Then the international media started to pay attention. The baiji “only became a story when it was gone,” another scientist on the expedition later observed to The New York Times.

It was too late for the baiji, but there was still hope for the vaquita. “We were very committed to not let that happen to the vaquita,” says Taylor. Within a year of their failed baiji expedition, many of the scientists behind what would become Vaquita CPR published a paper with a call to action, titled “Saving the Vaquita: Immediate Action, Not More Data.” In its opening line, they noted that the likely extinction of the baiji made the vaquita the most endangered cetacean remaining in the world. It was time to act.

At first, the scientists focused on getting nets out of the Gulf of California, the one place where vaquitas live. They lobbied the Mexican government to ban gill nets, which it did in 2015. But the main threat to the vaquitas now are illegal nets used to poach a fish called totoaba, whose swim bladders are a delicacy in China. The gill-net ban wasn’t enough to slow the decline of vaquita. “Once the population dropped below 100, it became evident we needed to consider radical and risky conservation actions,” says Frances Gulland, a senior scientist at the Marine Mammal Center, one of the organizations assisting in Vaquita CPR.

Captive-breeding programs have saved other species from the brink of extinction before. California condors and black-footed ferrets both rebounded from populations in the low double digits. But large marine mammals like the vaquita are much more difficult to keep in captivity. Since the death of a vaquita on this weekend, the team has made no additional attempts to capture the animals and a spokesperson says they will not for the three remaining days of scheduled field operations. It’s unclear what will happen in the future.

“Everyone here recognizes it’s risky,” says Gulland about Vaquita CPR. But they went ahead because the alternative, doing nothing, would mean vaquitas dying one by one in the wild.

Gulland cited other reasons for the risky plan, too. Having Vaquita CPR’s boats in the water, she hoped, would discourage illegal nets. And if conservation is also a fight for public attention, then an audacious plan like Vaquita CPR could get more people to pay attention. “This effort to develop captive breeding has really increased awareness in the community,” says Gullan. At the very least, the vaquita will not be like the baiji: forgotten until it went extinct.