Duke’s Andy Read Joins International Effort to Save Endangered Vaquitas

January 17, 2017

Contact: Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

DURHAM, N.C. – Andrew J. Read, director of the Duke University Marine Lab, will take part in a newly announced international effort to save the vaquita porpoise, the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Fewer than 60 vaquitas are believed to remain in the wild and their population – native only to northern portions of Mexico’s Gulf of California – continues to rapidly decline, in large part because of the accidental deaths of many of the porpoises in poachers’ gillnets.

In coming months, Read and other members of the international team will attempt to capture some of the last remaining vaquitas with the help of U.S. Navy dolphins and relocate the captured animals into a temporary sanctuary.

The rescue will occur in tandem with ongoing efforts by the Mexican government to remove the threat of gillnets in the upper Gulf and eliminate illegal fishing there. In 2015, the Mexican government instituted a two-year ban on gillnets over the entire known range of the vaquitas. It has also implemented a financial compensation program to provide income to fishermen affected by the ban.

Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, announced the ambitious rescue effort yesterday (Jan. 16), based on the recommendation of an expert advisory group, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA).

Read is an internationally cited expert on marine mammals. In addition to serving as director of the Duke Marine Lab, he is Stephen A. Toth Professor of Marine Biology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Andy Read.jpg

Andrew J. Read, director of the Duke University Marine Lab

“The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world and one of the most imperiled mammals,” Read says.

“It’s both exciting and daunting to be part of this collaborative effort to try to save the vaquita, much as conservationists came together in the 1980s to save the endangered California condor,” he says.

Other institutions collaborating in the effort include the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF), The Marine Mammal Center, the Chicago Zoological Society, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, and numerous other universities, government agencies, foundations and conservation organizations.

“We recognize that the odds are stacked against us, but the conservation and scientific communities feel a duty to act, and we hope our collective expertise can make a difference,” says Sam Ridgway, president of NMMF.

Vaquitas are not only very rare, but also notoriously elusive – they avoid motorized vessels and their reactions after spotting one are tricky to predict.
“Unlike condors, we expect that most vaquitas will remain in the wild as capturing even a few of them will be very difficult,” says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead vaquita researcher and head of CIRVA. “Having some is still better than having none. The decline is happening faster than solutions for illegal fishing, so we need to have multiple strategies.”

For more information about the rescue plan, visit www.vaquitacpr.org.