Bottlenose Dolphins for Underwater Mine Detection (credit: US Navy Marine Mammal Program)
The US Navy has started to assist conservation efforts or a critically endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, found only in waters of Baja's Gulf of California. Vaquitas become trapped and drown in gill-nets used to illegally fish for the totoaba for export to China. Less than 100 of the tiny dolphin cousins are known to exist and the population may be even lower and reproductively close to extinction.
In announcing the project, the Navy's Marine Mammal Program will use their own trained search dolphins to locate the vaquitas. The service has used bottlenose dolphins for underwater mine detection mossions since the 1950's that began after WWII. The Navy has found the biological sonar of dolphins, echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating mines at sea so they can be avoided or removed. The hope is that their large dolphins can help in the capture of some of the remaining vaquitas and corral them into secure bays protected from the illigal fishing boays and their nets.
Protection efforts for the vaquita have been underway for some time but the illicit fish trade for China has continued to cause their population to decline. While concerns exist for potentially loosing any captured vaquitas, it is hoped that a breeding population will be protected and allow for future release from the corralled bays.
Captive breeding has been successful with other rare species but it is necessary to capture a few animals for a program. With a population of less than 100 individual vaquitas surviving, there's little time to loose.