Grant Abel served as the Co-program Manager for Animal Care and Housing at the Vaquita Conservation, Protection and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) program. In this episode, he tells Lauren about that experience, and lessons learned.
Grant Abel has a lot of experience working with marine mammals, and small cetaceans in particular. He served as the Co-program Manager for Animal Care and Housing at the Vaquita Conservation, Protection and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) program.
He was present when an international team of scientists, veterinarians and marine mammal care professionals attempted to capture some vaquita to keep them safe in a sanctuary until their habitat was deemed safe for the animals to return. In this episode, he tells Lauren about that experience, and lessons learned.
References & Further Reading
Host & Executive Producer: Lauren Hartling
Guest: Grant Abel
Associate Producer: Derek Jang
Audio Engineering & Editing: Marcus Wernicke
Theme Song: Black Rhomb - River of Time (under license)
Additional Music: RimsyMusic - Watching the Stars (under license)
Sound effects under license from soundsnap, Ojoo Limited
Intro Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Not a Dolphin. This is Lauren joining you once again for the third part of our four-part “vaquita- sode”. In this episode, I had the opportunity to interview Grant Abel. He is currently the director of life sciences at the Seattle aquarium. And he had the opportunity to be a part of the vaquita conservation protection and recovery program, also known as Vaquita CPR, which you might remember from previous episodes. And we are going to be exploring again today. Grant was the manager of animal housing and care for the…
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Not a Dolphin. This is Lauren joining you once again for the third part of our four-part “vaquita- sode”. In this episode, I had the opportunity to interview Grant Abel. He is currently the director of life sciences at the Seattle aquarium. And he had the opportunity to be a part of the vaquita conservation protection and recovery program, also known as Vaquita CPR, which you might remember from previous episodes. And we are going to be exploring again today. Grant was the manager of animal housing and care for the vaquita at that program. And he was physically there during the collection attempt back in 2017.
Grant also has a lot of history working with small cetaceans, including the Yangtze finless porpoise. There’s actually a recovery program happening for that species right now in China.
And I’m very grateful that Grant was able to take some time to talk with me about his background, working with marine animals. And in particular, we started this conversation looking at his history of working with folks at Ocean Park in Hong Kong with some amazing species there.
So we’re going to get started. Sit back, get comfortable. Let’s jump right in.
Grant’s Experience with Finless Porpoise in China
Grant: When I was working as a director for animal care at Ocean Park in Hong Kong. And, um the reason, I was approached to, to kind of come into this, into the initial group to talk about the feasibility of, of the program, was my background working with finless porpoises in Japan.
Lauren: Oh, cool.
Grant: So I’ve been in Japan from 2000 to 2006 before I moved back to Hong Kong.
And, uh, during that six year period worked quite a lot with finless porpoises in the western part of the inland sea of Japan or Kyushu and, and yeah, western Honshu and, and, uh, it’s a straight there between the two islands and we dealt with hundreds of finless porpoise strandings and bycatch, a number of which were also live, uh, which we were able to rehab.
Uh, some were unsuccessful. A lot of calves, and there was a couple that were kept at the aquarium to continue ongoing research, which was to expand into captive breeding, artificial insemination, et cetera, in association with the main university of west of Tokyo there, but, and anyway, so it was, it was all of that kind of background working with finless porpoises and managing porpoises is very, very different to managing dolphins.
Lauren: And it Yeah.
Grant: It was that kind of, um, input that the group was looking for in considering the vaquita program. Um, and, uh, and, and that’s how I became involved in it.
Lauren: Well, and I thought it was interesting too, that they’re using the Oxbow rivers instead of having an offsite, you know, the whole difference between like in situ and ex situ programs, like that was actually kind of perfect that they have those Oxbow rivers to kind of pop animals in and.
Grant: that’s how I create basically creating reserves. Like we have game parks for terrestrial animals, you know, it’s, it’s that kind of concept and they’ve got local government and national government support to, you know, ensure there’s no fishing and all, all the necessary things around human activity in that area, which is as quite an industrial agricultural area, of course.
You know, they’re mitigating those impacts on those reserves to give the porpoises the best chance possible, which is really great.
Involvement in the vaquita project
Lauren: After spending time with other types of small cetaceans, Grant got involved in the Vaquita CPR project in 2015
Grant: There was the actual meeting in Harderwijk, uh, late in 2015, which kind of pulled together members of the CIRVA, you know, that , scientific community that, um, advises the Mexican government and a number of other folks such as myself, uh, and veterinarians, as well as, um, folks have worked, have worked with the harbour porpoises in Holland, quite a major rehabilitation center in Harderwijk.
And, um, so that was where the first initial meeting was that I joined, and, uh, continued since then.
Lauren: And with the folks that you met in 2015, was that kind of, when the conversation about attempting to do a capture of the vaquitas happened, like did that conversation kind of start in 2015 or had they started that conversation earlier?
Grant: I think the conversation had started earlier at, at CIRVA level, you know, the scientific advisory committee level, once, which once it was realized by the scientists that all of the in situ work that was going on. Um, the, the surveys, acoustic surveys, the monitoring, the, um, public engagement programs, the initiatives of the Mexican government at the time.
The general public in the world in general, you know, focusing on this, uh, this issue of this, um, species going extinct wasn’t working and the data coming in from their surveys was indicating that the population was, was dropping at a, at a rate of something in the order of 50% per year. And um like, they got down to estimated numbers of around 30 animals and said, well, this is we’ve got to do something else.
We just can’t continue to do the same thing and expecting different results. So, um, that’s something else was to consider ways of catching the animals and bring them into initially , small captive facilities for acclimation, but eventually establishing some kind of reserve , open water net system reserve in the area, um, for the animals until, until such time as the problem around the gillnet fishing and illegal fishing for totoaba fish could be resolved.
What the rescue plan looked like
Lauren: like many of you, I followed the vaquita rescue project in 2017, very closely. Anytime there was an update or any new piece of information, I was all over it. And obviously was devastated to find out. As we know that one animal did pass away in the process of the rescue attempt. I was so committed to understanding what had happened, I kind of forgot that there was so many other steps that would have been a part of this system to begin with. And so I got talking to Grant about the other pieces of the puzzle that many of us never knew were even set up in the first place.
Grant: The program that was rolled out and, uh, you know, film and everybody saw and what have you were really the initial steps. And that was obviously the catch the animals and to bring them into immediate care and attempt to acclimate them to captive environment.
Uh, and there were medical pools on land, as well as the sea pens, uh, offshore in the, in the hopes that they would acclimate and could acclimate in a, in a way similar to say finless porpoises or harbor porpoises, obviously the more related to other harbor porpoise species. And, um, but had they survived that process and we’ve been able to continue.
Then the next steps had been laid out for the Mexican government, which were to then investigate further much more, uh, wider, open. sea pen reserve area where the animals could be living more naturally, as well as having continuing the associated management facilities that were initially established, because so much research needed to be done on understanding the reproductive physiology, um, understanding the behavior, seasonal, feeding behaviors and all those sorts of things. So that a future re released program back into the wild when, when the wild was safe to be, uh, could actually be affected successfully. Uh, but as it was, as it turned out, the two that animals ever caught, first one we released after about four or five hours. The second one appeared to be adapting. She, she calmed down quite nicely actually after time. Uh, and then the capture myopathy obviously kicked in and, uh, it was all hands on deck for the emergency release, but we were unsuccessful in reviving her and getting her back out to sea.
Lauren: Capture myopathy is known as a disease and essentially a disease of extreme stress. It’s not just unique to vaquita. It has been observed in other animals like Risso’s dolphins, even land animals, like geese and deer and elk. What essentially happens is the body of the animal is reacting to a stressful situation.
And instead of eventually calming down and adapting, their body continues to act in a stressed way. What this leads to is things like a cardiac arrest or a heart attack, or eventually cortisol and stress hormones building up to the point that the muscles of the animals and the organs start to fail.
I’m so sorry. That must have been terrible to, to see that change, to see she’s she’s acclimating and then…
Grant: it was a very emotional moment for everybody that night. And it was an extraordinarily long night, obviously, as you can imagine, because, um, uh, you know, once it was determined that she had passed, then, then other protocols had to kick in and the work continued to the early hours, but, um, It highlighted for everybody particularly, I think the scientists involved and many of the, uh, and obviously with the veterinarians as well, but I think it was well known among the veterinary community that there was just so little known about the physiology of this animal, of this species.
And, um, I think that the biggest lesson learned, learned from the program, From the people that were involved was that, we can’t let the situation happen again. That is, we can’t have another species teetering on the brink of extinction due to circumstances beyond the control of, of most people and not have the means to be able to intervene and, and find ways to, um, bring them into managed care of some kind for, you know, repopulating and preserving the species for the future. That’s been done with many, many species through very good zoos and aquariums around the world. But it’s not, it’s not commonly done with small cetaceans and time is of the essence here for, for other small cetacean species.
Um, and including vaquita, of course to make sure that we’re not in that situation again.
Lauren: There are so many species that have been saved thanks to the work by talented people who work at accredited zoos and aquariums. Animals, like the California condor that only had 27 animals left in nature before people got involved. Przewalski, horses, uh, golden lion tamarins. We have in Canada, the Vancouver Island Marmot, black-footed ferrets. And that’s just animals that we know have made a come back, not to mention the ones that are currently in progress, where you have breeding programs for corals and the work at facilities to help breed frogs and salamanders and all sorts of animals that might not be as high on, on people’s radars.
So work with zoos and aquariums is absolutely vital to helping to save many different species
Grant: it’s, it’s really alarming and it’s, and the need is urgent. There’s no doubt about that for, for small cetaceans that are in living or lived in a coastal and riverine areas where there’s high density population and particularly a lot of fishing and gillnet fishing in particular. Um, gillnet fishing around the world everywhere you look is, is killing hundreds of thousands of small cetaceans annually.
And, um, and it’s not abated not being abated in any shape or form. Um, then, then in some regions of the world is intentional harvesting of, of these animals for food or harvesting of the animals for bait, for other forms of fisheries. So there’s a, there’s a lot going on. And, um, you know, the vaquita for me, from my perspective, really highlighted the need to, um, Well work in those areas of cetacean protection and albeit they’re controversial.
Yes. Um, you know, catching small cetaceans, bringing them into captive care as it is, uh, controversial given the last 40 years of controversy around keeping the cetaceans in aquariums. But it’s the keeping of the animals in these aquariums and the lessons we’ve learned from a captive bottlenose dolphins and killer whales and other species that have enabled us to know, um, how these animals tick. And if there were circumstances that required, uh, keeping animals, keeping those species for, for future generations as a, as a conservation program, then, you know, we’ve got the information to do it, but there are many, many species for which we don’t have that information.
Help of animals in human care
It was through that work with other species that we were able to design equipment for the handling of the animals at sea, which seemed to work reasonably well. Yeah, we, we did a complete search on knowledge around what vaquita eat in the wild in order to ensure that we had those particular species on hand for when animals were caught and brought in and, uh, which we were able to do.
And it was surprising, you know, when you start to look at more what’s, what’s the ontogeny, what’s, what’s the growth rate of a vaquita. When, when do they grow? When are they, when are they sexually mataure? All of these kinds of details that. We know, so well for say bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises so that we know when diets need to change because of the growth rates of these animals.
We know when they come into sexual maturity and all of these things, but we knew nothing about it for vaquita. And there’s such a dearth of information on these physiological information on the species. It was quite remarkable. And I think that was, as I said earlier, that was, that was the big takeaway for me and, and for many other people
Lauren: I keep wanting to ask questions about, you know, how long are they pregnant for? How long is, um, are they receptive for breeding? And I keep reminding myself, like, no one really knows that information because even, even right now with the, um, the observational research is still happening with the vaquitas is it not? People are still out there trying to study them visually
Grant: yes. And acoustically. Yes.
Lauren: And I found that interesting in the paper that you had sent that, you know, there’s multiple sites where these acoustic monitors are in the water. And it said about 21 of 35 of them regularly get sounds of vaquitas coming by, at least from 2017, it looks like. Have you heard any updates from the field about the acoustic monitoring recently?
Grant: I do hear from time to time that animals are being observed, um, by by people who are out there on the water. Um, what is alarming about that is that the number of animals that are being observed, you know, this always saw four animals or six animals.
It’s like, wow, really? You know, that’s visually seeing them. Obviously there’s well, hopefully, and then under circumstances, they would be more that are not seen. Um, but there’s such a cryptic animal. Let’s see very, very difficult to see, unless the water’s just very glassy. Um, but, um, that said, you know, the acoustic monitoring is also picking up very low numbers as well.
So, there is some hope, however, uh, the, yeah, there have been reports of seeing mothers with, with a calf or. I should say, a mother with a calf, not mothers with calves, that I’ve heard about, which is, which is encouraging. And, you know, obviously we hope that that continues, but it’s such a low population at this point in time.
It’s whether it can recover in the wild given the environment out there at present and what it may be in the future is really doubtful, very doubtful.
Lauren: Right. But it brings back my biology in university of talking about bottlenecking events. And at what point, you know, how many individuals in a population do you need in order for the population to be strong and healthy?
A genetic bottleneck is a term used by biologists to describe what can happen to a population. If there’s a sudden environmental change or disaster that would affect all those animals. What that means is instead of having a big genetically diverse group of animals, all of a sudden, you might have some who have a genetic disease or something that makes them less fit for the environment.
They’re not as likely to survive. So even though they survived this big traumatic event, genetically, they might not be able to keep the population going.
Grant: It’s clear that from, from those papers that it was a very small population to begin with. And, uh, the numbers, of course, who had known. And so that it may have emerged as a species from some sort of a genetic bottleneck, or very small group of animals and small genetic pool there. That, that seems to be the general consensus. However, you know, life, life lives on, right? life will go on and, uh, you know, the species found away until.
Well, less than 120 years ago when, when the gillnet fishing really started to take off in that region where they live and in the last, what, less than 20 years. Um, we’ve just about wiped out the population.
Lauren: Most of the folks that I’ve talked to, they’ve said, you know, these animals are healthy. We’ve never seen one in bad condition. They’re having babies. Like you just said, they are having bellies full of fish. Literally the only thing killing them is these gillnets.
And in the paper that was published after the collection efforts were made, it, you know, was saying that. A couple of individuals. We tried to catch them in the nets for the collection process, but they were able to evade them. Which I thought was kind of fascinating that obviously these individuals who are survived are able to move through their environment in a way that allows them to survive.
But it’s almost because they’ve gotten so good at avoiding the nets, all it really takes is one mistake leads to your death, basically. So all these animals that are left
are really able to navigate their environment, but all it takes is that one
Grant: Exactly. And I think that’s a general consensus too. It’s certainly my impression know when we were watching these animals and the drone footage of these two animals, um, being driven toward the net, uh, the catch net, and they went under and then popped up on the other side and everybody was just amazed but it kind of did sink in that, um, Of course they know their environment and surely they know the danger of nets they’ve been with conspecifics, you know, mates, calves, related animals that have drowned alongside them in these nets they’re, they’re an intelligent species. They must be learning it. Must’ve learned something. And, um, and it really struck home that when their senses are sharpened, because in this instance started being corralled. Um, but they’re looking ahead, they’re able to discern the environment around them and navigate around these barriers. But you’re, but you’re right.
I think when they’re, they’re not under that kind of stress and they’re chasing their fish and feeding or, or, you know, a mother has a, has a calf along side it and the calf wanders off and the mother needs to go get it. And suddenly it’s in a net without realizing, because it’s mental focus was on something else.
Um, and then it’s all over. Um, because there’s, there’s no, no escaping these nets, you know, once they’re in their in.
Lauren: The other thing I was noticing in that paper was talking about how murky the water can be.
Lauren: I mean, I guess they’re obviously using their echolocation to navigate through their environment, but they seem to not be slowed down by that murkiness.
Grant: not at all, not at all. I probably give some, um, a high degree of comfort, to be. You know, under the surface to be able to interpret the, the wide environment around them through sound, um, and not, and not be, not be visible and not be seen. Um, I would imagine there’s, there’s some comfort in that for this particular species.
it, and it was remarkable. There was one instance in particular where the, the flotilla of boats was following a couple of vaquita and were completely encircled. And by that, I mean, a circle of, of a couple of miles diameter, or several miles diameter with, you know, the big guy, telescope, telescopic eyes, watching them.
And then it came across the radio after they’d gone down, and then nothing, these animals just disappeared. It was completely glassy that, you know, and, uh, so, so they just disappeared on a glassy Beaufort zero day with this floatilla of people around them, with binoculars watching them the spot where they left us, went down for a breath and everybody just kind of shook their head and said, well, there you go.
Lauren: Beaufort zero day means the water is incredibly calm, glass-like so it’s not wavy at all. And vaquita would be very easy to spot. The Beaufort Windscale goes up to 12 of zero being the calmest and 12 basically being hurricane force winds.
Grant: That’s, that’s what vaquitas do. Um, which is, you know, what, they’re obviously able to navigate their environment so well and, um, very, very discrete animals, very cryptic animals, difficult to see and follow.
Lauren: Do we have any idea of how long they seem to be able to hold their breath for? Or is that another biology thing that we just don’t know?
Grant: There’s been observed, general resting periods and, and feeding and what have you, and it’s, it’s not dissimilar to, harbour porpoise resting periods. What was unique were moments like what I just described when, you know, for the animals to evade that search group and pop up somewhere outside of that circle. Yeah. Well, no one’s looking or, or beyond the visual acuity of the technology we had, they would have needed it to be able to water for, for several minutes, I guess, to, uh, to make that trip. So, you know, I think it’s generally understood, but, but certainly there haven’t been any trials or tests to really understand the physiology of, of these species, of this species.
Grants role in the vaquita project and life support systems
Lauren: so you mentioned why you got started with the vaquita project, with your experience with the Finless porpoise, would you be able to describe your specific role with the vaquita CPR project?
Grant: Sure. I was a co program manager for vaquita housing and a animal care. The team and I, uh, I was working under the auspices of the National Marine mammal foundation program and, um, the team and I were bringing together all of the elements for, for animal husbandry for, for transport of the animals.
The veterinarian’s involved for monitoring the animals, providing, you know, medical support as we needed and, and ensuring that all of the equipment needed to provide that monitoring, um, you know, mobile ultrasounds, x-rays, being able to draw blood and get, get a reasonably quick, uh, results in the field that, all of that type of thing which is reasonably available, but expensive, obviously. And, uh, we had sufficient gear on different boats. Cause we had to, obviously there was, there was more than just one catch boat and more than just one transport boat so we had to have a sets of gear and staff on the boats for, for any situation and be flexible with how we’ve managed that equipment and those resources.
And also, working with the company that provided the sea pens for us, uh, that were just absolutely wonderful folks. Um, the tuna fishing company out of Ensenada and, uh, they were just absolutely wonderful. just wonderful people to work with set up the sea pens very, very quickly, um, and, uh, you know, met all of the needs that we had to, um, to provide for the animals in the sea pens.
Lauren: the kinds of nets that Grant is mentioning that would have been used to house vaquita and the ocean are specifically net pens that would have been used for raising tuna in the ocean, not the ones that you would use to catch them. The difference being for tuna, being raised in an aquaculture setting, these fish never stopped. They swim forward constantly. And so you need to have really big round net pens.
Grant: Uh, and also we set up the onsite Medical pools, which were above ground inflatable pools under a tent, a hurricane approved tent, which had hepafiltration for the air handling systems, um, because of the dry desert air and potential for dust coming in and all those kinds of things, any microbes or bacteria, that all pathogens that come in on their dust, we wanted to be sure we filtered out if need be.
And obviously, uh, above ground pools with you know, conventional life support systems, filters, UV, water sterilization, that type of thing. So there was. Yeah, there was quite a lot involved in a lot of people in the team. And then, um, we, we leant on the aquarium industry globally, but also specifically in Mexico to help provide, uh, experienced staff working with small cetaceans.
Because obviously once you get these animals in. We were expecting to be having eyes on them around the clock 24/7. And, um, so when you were putting together teams of people working in a field situation like that for three, eight hour shifts, um, you know, it starts to become a very big logistic exercise in itself and, and myself and other people from the foundation, they were responsible for all of that program.
Lauren: so you would have had all of those parts set up had the acclimation worked, there would have been like a next step or would they, animals have stayed where they were initially put?
Grant: Uh, no, there was a, there was a next step, which was a much bigger, uh, reserve type of area to be established for a small population or the population, whatever that might’ve been a number of vaquitas to live a semi natural life as much as possible and, uh, continued study of, of them. Of course in the hopes that in the future that you environment out in the Gulf there would have been, uh, made safe for them to go back and they could have gone back.
Government Role in reducing illegal fishery
Lauren: Right. And then I know in talking to Lorenzo, there was the conversation of, while you folks are down there working on the vaquita CPR project, that the illegal fishing clearly had stopped in that time because there were so many boats and planes and just people in the area. But he was saying that as of now, that is changed. And now it’s kind of constant illegal gillnet fishing that’s happening at this time.
Grant: Yeah, it’s gosh, it’s such a difficult environment, uh, for the Mexican government to, to manage. Um, when you, when you think of the resources that the Mexican government put in or lent into this program with them within Navy, um, the military on land, uh, you know, there was military outposts surrounding this camp that we’d set up.
Um, they were Navy boats overseeing everything. It was a huge operation on their part and there was also other NGOs working in the area. Sea Shepherd obviously was working in the area continuing to lift illegal nets. And even while we were out there, we came somewhat across nets that were in the water, which we were able to tag and someone would come along later and pull them up.
And there was still this netting going on, even with this floatilla of military out there and activity going on in that small area. So I can imagine now that that that activity has wound down that it’s just basically opened the waters again for, for the illegal fishers to go out and, uh, continue to set nets and catch unabated really. And, and that’s, that’s the big concern, uh, and the, the Mexican government seems powerless to stop it in its tracks. The US government, uh, at the border seems powerless to stop the trafficking of the dried product through to the US and out again into China. They catch a little bit of it going into Hong Kong.
You know, where I spent a lot of time prior to joining this project. Yeah. And, um, um, China itself, and Hong Kong, even though it’s a whole department within the anti-trafficking section of customs working on it, um, you know, the product still gets through, so. I don’t have the answer for that. This, I think demonstrates some of the underbelly of, of what’s going on in the world that all of those things that we have in place for regular people to abide by just don’t seem to be having an effect.
What can we do?
Lauren: Right. one of the conversations I had with some of the other folks was, you know, what can people do? what can anyone listening to this podcast do to help save vaquita slash prevent this type of human destruction in the future? And I was actually curious what maybe your suggestions for that would be? .
Grant: So personally, I think it’s going to come down to this. Finding a way to stop the trafficking. Uh, the demand in China won’t change. It’s huge. It’s massive. It’s, it’s, it’s bigger than the number of people going out to fish on the waters in the upper Gulf, for totoaba totoaba and in conversations I had with, with the new consul general Mexican consul general in Hong Kong, um, back then a few years ago, The general consensus was it can only be stopped at the source.
It can’t be stopped in China, um, in the short term anyway, and in time to save the vaquita, basically. So somehow that the Mexican government needs to commit the resources out there on the water to stop fishing boats, putting nets in the water. Uh, needs to continue to support the lifting of, of fishing nets out of the water by by groups, such as Sea Shepherd and others.
There’s local groups as well, uh, who are involved in that. And those people need protection and it needs to be some change at the border between Mexico and the United States for stopping the illegal trafficking of this product, along with other products, obviously that are illegally trafficked into the United States.
Um, presumably those pathways are being used for, for this particular product, but it’s also exiting the US and going to. Hong Kong and, and Southern China. So there’s, there’s three border checks where this stuff is getting through, and it’s, it’s I think, through tightening of those areas I think this trade can be nipped in the bud and perhaps um, vaquita will have a chance in the short term, but underscoring that little. So like to point out that the people in, in San Filipe and on the other side of the Gulf there, uh, Santa Clara, uh, need to have viable incomes and education, um, and you know, hope for the future. So it’s, it’s a double edged sword really for the, for the Mexican government.
And putting its forces in place to stop the fishing, but also putting its resources in place to support the communities you know, for having not just food on the table, but you know, safe and healthy life for their citizens. And that’s not happening.
Current status of vaquita rescue and other small species in need
Lauren: Are you currently still a part of anything vaquita related?
Grant: Yeah, well I’m actually the contact point person for the cetacean specialist, group ex situ programs. And I’m part of the program that branched out from this vaquita CPR was to look at other species that are potentially down the road going to be facing the same , situation as vaquita and the Baiji the Yangtze river dolphin that, uh, was clear the extinct early this century, and to look at , what is, what, you know, knowledge gaps around these species and the kinds of things that would be involved to prevent being in the same situation again. And so we, held a, workshop in Nuremberg in Germany, uh, the end of 2018 with lessons learned from the Baiji extinction and the work, all the work that went into that lessons learned from the Yangtze Finless porpoise , program, there in China and also lessons learned from the vaquita program. To you know, as a backdrop to looking at well, what are the next species facing extinction?
And , it seemed pretty clear there was seven small cetacean species that , potentially, uh, are in trouble and very little is known about them. The next one on the list is the Atlantic humpbacked dolphin found on the West coast and waters of the West coast of Africa and the Atlantic. Um, very little information known about that species, its range, its physiology, anything. But. What is known is that they’re being hammered by a gillnet fishing, uh, also intentional hunting, , and, uh, some areas or some habitat where they used to inhabit as being redeveloped for harbors and, and, um, other activities, mining and so on. And there’s a lot of industrial fishing in that area.
Some of it unregulated because it’s such a remote area of the world to regulate and that very, very difficult to do so. Um, So, uh, the work that I’ve continued with is to really help support programs that are going to improve our knowledge about species in these areas. The next small cetacean species that are facing, uh, extinction crisis and, uh, find ways to avoid being in a situation again, , as we found ourselves with vaquita,
Lauren: With the humpback dolphin you’re talking about there is this a species that we know so little about? We aren’t even too sure about the population size?
Grant: Yes, that’s correct.
Lauren: Yeah. I always found that. So fascinating looking at different species, even on the IUCN website and, you know, status, a known data deficient. And it’s just, it’s kind of hard to see that even in, you know, 2020, where it feels like we know so much.
Grant: Well, yes, but we know so much, but there’s, we also know that there’s so much we don’t know. And, and, you know, you look at data deficient status for some species. The, the Burmeister is porpoise, for example, down in South America, which is found on the Pacific side of South America and also the Atlantic side.
And, uh, uh, what is known is that there was a huge, massive bycatch of this species. In countries like Peru on the Pacific side, um, and virtually nothing is known about their ecology, natural history, physiology, um, you know, the life history and the different populations of Burmeister’s porpoise found around the continent of South America and any differences in a subspecies or even species level.
So there’s so much in situ work that in, in nature work that needs to be conducted to really understand this population or this species. And. Obviously much, much more work to be done on the ground to help inform and help change the behavior of the fishing community, inform and support government actions to find ways to protect this species.
Um, otherwise it’s going to be gone before people even realize it’s there. So, and, and currently, so my point was currently that, um, that species I think, is listed as data deficient because there is data deficient, but instead of deficient, with a critical endangerment in mind, for some of the populations found around the continent.
Supporting the work globally
But it actually also creates a lot of opportunities. I have to say, put it into that context. A lot of opportunity for people in those countries, too. Who are concerned and who are taking action and, uh, opportunities for folks in the West, um, to be able to support that work in those countries, with those people, that’s where the opportunities are.
And there are some successes as well. And I should add, it’s not all doom and gloom. But it’s, it’s, it’s urgent the work is urgent. Um, but fortunately there are some absolutely wonderful people in every one of these countries working diligently, you know, 24/7 to, to try and change culture, change society, behavior.
Um, that’s going to, um, you know, help preserve these species for the future. ,
Lauren: and that’s why I really appreciate being able to talk with you today and getting your experience, the things that you’ve seen in participated in, because there’s so much information out there that I don’t think the average person necessarily understands or has access to and exactly to your point, that there is a lot happening.
We need to know more information, but we can take lessons from the vaquita, from the Baiji and try to support protecting animals and these other places, because it also comes down to the fact that you’re not just protecting an endangered species, all of us are connected together is what it always comes back to.
Grant: Yes, that’s right. Absolutely right. We are all connected. There’s no doubt about that.
Lauren: Well, I really appreciate your time. I really appreciate your take on all of this and, and your experience and the fact that you’ve spent so much time trying to help these animals that we hopefully all care about. so I want to thank you so much for your time Grant.
Grant: Thank you. You too. Thanks very much.
Lauren: Once again, I want to send out a huge thank you to Grant for taking the time to talk with me and letting me ask him all sorts of questions. It really gave us the chance to see what happened behind the scenes at the vaquita rescue project. I also want to point out we will be having a future episode on the Baiji and the Finless porpoise that you heard about here today.
I will also let you know that our next and final episode, all above vaquita is going to be an interview with Dr. Barbara Taylor. And I’m really excited for that next episode, because we got to talk about so much genetics. I think. You’re really gonna like it.
I also want to give a shout out to Marcus Wernicke who edits these episodes. And I want to thank you for listening. If you have any questions, you can always email me at lauren at porpoise.org. You can check out porpoise.org for anything you want to get porpoise related. And I also encourage you to share what you’ve learned here with your friends and family.
Honestly, anyone who’s willing to listen, but on behalf of myself and our team here, thank you so much and go fluke and learn something.