US Navy-trained dolphins are being tapped to save the world’s smallest porpoise, vaquita, that is on the verge of extinction in the Gulf of California, experts said.
Experts are hoping dolphins’ natural sonar would be able to do what technology has not: locate them, so they can be captured and put in a protective area, the New York Times reported.
“Their specific task is to locate (vaquita -- an extremely elusive creature),” said Jim Fallin of the US Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.
“They would signal that by surfacing and returning to the boat from which they were launched,” Fallin said.
Fallin said the dolphins were trained by the Navy Marine Mammal Program for tasks like locating sea mines. The program was expected to start sometime in 2017 spring.
Experts believe fewer than 60 vaquitas were left in the Gulf waters -- they have been decimated by illegal fishing for the swim bladder of a fish, the totoaba, which is a prized delicacy in China.
Although the vaquita has never been held successfully in captivity, experts hope to put the remaining porpoises in floating pens in a safe bay in the Gulf of California.
This bay is called the Sea of Cortez where they can be protected and hopefully breed.
Mexico has banned gill nets that often trap vaquitas in the area, but has had trouble enforcing it because the totoaba draws very high prices on the illegal market.
“At the current rate of loss, the vaquita will likely decline to extinction by 2022 unless the current gillnet ban is maintained and effectively enforced,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chairman of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita.
Some experts, like Omar Vidal, Mexico director of the World Wildlife Fund, however, oppose the capture plan, which could risk killing the few remaining vaquitas.
It could also open up a free-for-all illegal fishing once they are removed from their natural habitat.