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Endangered vaquita porpoise dies after being captured off San Felipe

SAN FELIPE, Baja Mexico (CBS News 8) -- One of the last remaining vaquita porpoise has died just hours after being captured by scientists off San Felipe in Baja, Mexico. The endangered marine mamm...

SAN FELIPE, Baja Mexico (NEWS 8) - One of the last remaining vaquita porpoise has died just hours after being captured by scientists off San Felipe in Baja, Mexico.

The endangered marine mammal died as part of a last-ditch effort to establish a captive breeding program on the Sea of Cortez.  Less than 30 of the porpoises remain in the wild.

The team of scientists – many based in San Diego – had been trying since October 12 to capture as many vaquita as possible in order to put them in seaside pens.  They hoped the effort would bring the vaquita back from the brink of extinction.

The team is meeting Sunday to determine whether the effort will continue, according to Sam Ridgway, the founder of San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation.  The group is in charge of the VaquitaCPR team of scientists on scene in San Felipe.

“They are having meetings today and going through their extensive checklist on what to do next,” Ridgway said.

“It’s very unfortunate.  It’s very sad that the animal died.  That’s all I can say,” said Ridgway.

The stress of being captured apparently contributed to the marine mammal’s death, according to Ridgway.

Mexico’s Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Rafael Pacchiano, first announced the animal’s capture in a tweet on Saturday.  He also tweeted a photo of the porpoise being held out of the water in a sling.

"The vaquita captured by the VaquitaCPR team is a female adult of reproductive age. It is a great achievement that fills us with hope.  It is under the supervision of veterinarians,”  Pacchiano tweeted before the vaquita's death.

VaquitaCPR also captured a 6-month-old vaquita calf last month but it had to be released back to the wild after it showed signs of life-threatening stress.

UPDATE 11-05-17 -- VaquitaCPR issued the following statement on the incident:

The entire VaquitaCPR team is deeply saddened to report that during field operations to rescue the world’s most critically endangered marine mammal, a vaquita porpoise has died. With less than 30 vaquitas left on Earth, the entire rescue team is heartbroken by this devastating loss.

Extreme precautions and significant planning have gone into every aspect of the VaquitaCPR rescue plan. VaquitaCPR assembled many of the most experienced marine mammal experts in the world to determine if human care could rescue them from extinction. No conservation project like this has ever been done before, and the operation comes with significant risk. However, scientists agreed that the risk of extinction in the wild was still far greater than the risk of rescue efforts.

A mature female vaquita, not pregnant or lactating, had been caught and transported successfully late in the afternoon on Saturday in the Northern Gulf of California and was taken to a specially-modified floating sea pen known as ElNido, or The Nest. From the moment of capture, the vaquita was under constant care and observation for its health and safety. Marine mammal veterinarians monitoring the vaquita's health noticed the animal's condition began to deteriorate and made the determination to release. The release attempt was unsuccessful and life saving measures were administered.  Despite the heroic efforts of the veterinary team, the vaquita did not survive.

Every member of the international rescue team is a leading expert in their field and deeply committed to saving the vaquita from imminent extinction. The rescue operation was considered a great hope for the continued existence of this rare and elusive porpoise which is at severe risk of extinction due to entanglement and drowning in gillnets in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Hundreds of vaquitas have been lost since 1997 despite significant efforts by the Mexican government to ban gillnet fishing throughout the vaquitas’ range and establish strong enforcement of conservation measures. Illegal gillnet fishing continues.

With so few vaquitas left, this consortium of international conservation and animal care experts was assembled at the request of the Mexican government and scientific community to develop an unprecedented rescue and relocation operation that is widely recognized as the best hope for vaquitas' existence. The risk of losing a vaquita during field operations was always acknowledged as a possibility, but  it was determined that it was unacceptable to stand by and watch the vaquita porpoise disappear without a heroic attempt at rescue.

Vaquita Conservation, Rescue, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) scientists in collaboration with an independent review panel established for this purpose and the Mexican government, will carefully review the events of the past 24 hours and determine how best to proceed. A necropsy has been performed and tissue samples have been collected to inform in this review.

Update information will be provided as it becomes available.

UPDATE 11-06-17 -- Sea Shepherd Conservation Society responds to VaquitaCPR news release statement:

The entire Vaquita CPR team may indeed be deeply saddened but they can’t say they were not warned and if they continue this foolhardy plan, another Vaquita will die. This team just contributed to the possible extinction of this extremely rare endangered species. This project should be called Vaquita RIP and it is now a contributing factor to the possibility of extinction.

We warned them that the animals were shy, elusive and easily stressed. The death of this Vaquita and the stress recently inflicted to a Vaquita calf has most likely stressed the entire remaining population. What scientists agreed that the risk was worth undertaking? From the looks of the supporters of the VaquitaCPR Project, the majority of the scientists are working within the captivity industry. There is a better and safer approach and that is the approach that Sea Shepherd is presently doing with the Operation Milagro Project and our approach is to physically defend the Vaquita Refuge from poachers.

How can they say that the Vaquita was ‘caught and transported successfully,’ when the Vaquita died within 24 hours?  This is like saying ‘the operation was successful but the patient died.’ To describe this effort as ‘heroic’ is delusional. This Vaquita died because of the arrogance of this capture team.

Most of these team members are employed in the captivity industry. If the problem is entanglement and drowning in gillnets, the solution is to remove and prevent gill nets from being deployed. Sea Shepherd has removed over 400 illegal nets while working with a minimal budget. With more funding, more nets could be removed and more interventions against poachers can be undertaken. Instead of funding being directed towards intervention against the real problem, this VaquitaCPR project is simply another lethal threat to the survival of the Vaquita.

The best hope for the prevention of the extinction of the Vaquita is enforcement and intervention. Sea Shepherd has never acknowledged that the death of a Vaquita was a possibility. We stated from the beginning that the project would 100% kill these animals from stress. What is unacceptable is that these ‘scientists’ are indeed standing by and refusing to support intervention. Calling themselves ‘heroic’ is arrogantly inaccurate. Heroic is confronting poachers and working long hard hours to remove illegal nets. There is nothing heroic about capturing and stressing these extremely shy marine mammals. The VaquitaCPR project is now very much a part of the threat to the survival of the Vaquita.

Captivity scientists love their necropsies. This is one thing they are really good at because they do so many of them for all the animals that continuously die in captivity.

This ill-conceived project must be shut down before another Vaquita dies.  There are two ways this can go – abandon the project or the next update will be another death.

The VaquitaCPR Project refuses to acknowledge the net retrieval operations by Sea Shepherd or Sea Shepherd’s successful interventions against poachers. They act like Sea Shepherd does not exist and our ships have not actively been in the Vaquita Refuge for the last few years successfully removing (nets). This is most likely due to Sea Shepherd's anti-captivity policy.

Captain Paul Watson, Founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

UPDATE 11-06-17 -- Animal Welfare Institute calls for end to VaquitaCPR capture operation:

Washington, DC—A breeding-age female vaquita porpoise died on November 4, following her capture by the VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Recovery) program—which seeks to capture and temporarily relocate the remaining vaquita to an ocean pen in the Upper Gulf of California. With fewer than 30 vaquita remaining in the wild, the loss of a reproductive female is catastrophic for the species’ future.

Concerns also remain about a six-month-old vaquita calf, the first porpoise captured as part of the CPR program. The calf showed signs of stress after its capture on October 19 and was quickly released to an unknown fate.

In reaction to these recent developments, the Animal Welfare Institute issued the following statement:

While our organization acknowledges that the VaquitaCPR program was borne out of a desperate, yet well-intentioned, desire to save the species, we believe that given the extreme risks involved, the vaquita capture plans must be brought to an immediate halt. These tiny porpoises do not respond well to the stress of capture, and not a single additional vaquita should be deliberately put in danger in this way.

The Mexican government must immediately and substantially increase enforcement efforts throughout the Upper Gulf of California, and bring illegal fishing to an end. The June 30 ban on gillnets issued by Mexico, unfortunately, still provides exemptions for the area’s corvina and Spanish mackerel gillnet fisheries. The ban also fails to prohibit the possession, sale and manufacture of these deadly nets.

Unless illegal fishing is ended through rigorous and stepped-up enforcement, and gillnets can no longer be found in the Upper Gulf, the regulations of the ban will remain inadequate to save the vaquita from extinction.

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