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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Dolphins to the Rescue

Dolphins to the Rescue

 

Bottlenose dolphins used for mine detection (credit: Navy Marine Mammal Program)

 

The US Navy assisted the conservation efforts for a critically endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, found in Baja's Gulf of California. Vaquitas are the smallest of dolphins, whales, and orcas. They can become trapped in fishermen's gill nets, used to illegally fish for totoaba, and drown. The fish's swim bladder is dried and exported to China where it is used as a soup preparation and thought to have medicinal properties. Perhaps less than 100 of the tiny vaquita mammals exist, their population may be lower, and nearing reproductive extinction levels.

With their program, the Navy will use their dolphins, trained to detect underwater mines, to search and locate and video tape the vaquitas. The service has used bottlenose dolphins since the 1950's for mine detection efforts after WWII. The dolphin's sonar and echolocation sounds make them uniquely effective at this unique task so the mines can then be avoided and safely removed. The hope is the Navy's dolphins could help coax some vaquitas into secure bays where they can be protected from illegal fishing boats and their illegal nets.

Vaquita conservation efforts have been underway for some time run by the World Wildlife Fund and the Mexican government. The illicit, international trade in trade continues to impact their population. The US Customs Services estimates the illicit trade at ~8-10 billion dollars/year. The documentary film, Sea of Shadows, was produced on this wildlife smuggling to garner support for expanding vaquita protections and eliminate the illicit trade in the Sea of Cortez. The film won the prestigious Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival where its world premiere was premiered. Sea of Shadows later went into wide-release in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.

While ligitimate concerns exist about potentially loosing vaquitas from protected bays, it is hoped a breeding population might develop for future releases back into the Gulf of California. With a population of so few individuals, there's only a slim chance of success to save this tiny dolphin from extinction. The Navy and their trained bigger cousins and helping to in that effort prevent that outcome from happening. WHB

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