With fewer than 20 individuals estimated to be left in the wild, the question of whether to keep vaquitas in captivity has been a matter of debate among conservationists and marine mammal experts.
On one hand, captive breeding programs have been successful for other endangered species, offering a potential lifeline to dwindling populations. In theory, bringing vaquitas into a controlled environment could protect them from threats such as entanglement in fishing nets and allow for a carefully managed breeding program to increase their numbers.
However, the reality of capturing and keeping these secretive porpoises in captivity is far from straightforward. Unlike their more adaptable dolphin relatives, vaquitas have proven to be highly sensitive to stress and changes in their environment. Previous attempts to capture vaquitas for conservation purposes have been met with heartbreak, as the captured animals suffered from extreme stress, leading to health complications and even death.
In 2017, a bold rescue mission called “VaquitaCPR” aimed to capture vaquitas and create a temporary sanctuary for them in the Gulf of California. Despite the expertise and dedication of the team involved, the mission had to be aborted when one of the captured vaquitas, a mature female, died shortly after being placed in a sea pen.
The tragic outcome of this mission underscores the risks and uncertainties associated with keeping vaquitas in captivity. The stress of capture, confinement, and the artificial environment can prove fatal, making the prospect of a successful breeding program uncertain at best.
Given the precarious state of the vaquita population, many experts now argue that the focus should be on preserving and protecting their natural habitat. A multi-pronged approach that includes stricter enforcement of fishing regulations, the use of alternative fishing gear that reduces the risk of bycatch, and community-led conservation efforts could be the key to saving these enigmatic creatures from the brink of extinction.
While the idea of keeping vaquitas in captivity to save them from extinction may seem appealing, the risks and uncertainties involved make it a less viable option.