Dr. Barbara Taylor is a NOAA scientist who has been fighting for the vaquita’s survival for decades. In this episode, she talks about her role in that mission and explains why she thinks that low numbers and a lack of genetic diversity alone won’t doom the vaquita to extinction.
#6: Genetics and Why the Vaquita Still Has a Chance
- Podcast host Lauren Hartling with Dr. Barbara Taylor
- Post date July 23, 2021
Dr. Barbara Taylor is a scientist with NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center. She has been studying porpoises since the 1980s, and she's been an advocate for the vaquita conservation mission for decades as well. In this episode, she talks about her role in that mission and a explains why she thinks that low numbers and a lack of genetic diversity alone won't doom the vaquita to extinction.
References & Further Reading
Extinction is Imminent for Mexico’s Endemic Porpoise Unless Fishery Bycatch is Eliminated (Paper)
Abundance and depth distribution of harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) in northern California determined from a 1995 ship survey (Paper)
Saving the Vaquita: Immediate Action, Not More Data (relevant to the burden of proof comment) (Paper)
Reference genome and demographic history of the most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita (Paper)
The Uses of Statistical Power in Conservation Biology: The Vaquita and Northern Spotted Owl (Paper)
Passive acoustic monitoring of the decline of Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita (Paper)
A combined visual and acoustic estimate of 2008 abundance, and change in abundance since 1997, for the vaquita, Phocoena sinus (Paper)
A field effort to capture critically endangered vaquitas Phocoena sinus for protection from entanglement in illegal gillnets (Paper)
Examining the Risk of Inbreeding Depression in a Naturally Rare Cetacean, The Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) (Paper)
New Zealand Robin (Article)
Black Robin (Article)
Medulla Oblongatta: Part of our brain that controls breathing (Glossary Term)
Whale conscious breathing (Background Reading)
Genetic markers 1 (Glossary Term)
Genetic markers 2 (Glossary Term)
Extirpated (Glossary Term)
Host & Executive Producer: Lauren Hartling
Guest: Dr. Barbara Taylor
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
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of not a dolphin. My name is Lauren and I am thrilled to have you here to share the final episode of our vaquita focused mini series today. I wanted to make sure you had this episode in time for this year’s international Save the Vaquita Day happening on July 24th. There is a whole day of information sharing planned for you. I encourage you to join us. It’s going to be online and live. Uh, you can check out more information on porpoise.org and it will be recorded as well. If you’re…
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of not a dolphin. My name is Lauren and I am thrilled to have you here to share the final episode of our vaquita focused mini series today.
I wanted to make sure you had this episode in time for this year’s international Save the Vaquita Day happening on July 24th.
There is a whole day of information sharing planned for you. I encourage you to join us. It’s going to be online and live. Uh, you can check out more information on porpoise.org and it will be recorded as well. If you’re listening to this after July 24th, you can still catch all of the information where we’re trying to update you on the current status of vaquita and what you can do to protect for vaquita and in reality, to protect other species who face the same threats.
In this particular episode, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Barbara Taylor. She’s a NOAA scientist who has a plethora of experience related to porpoises genetics and I even had the chance to ask how exactly she got her start in working with the vaquita project. And she shared her experience working with other species as well.
So with all that being said, let’s dive right in.
Today. We are joined by Dr. Barbara Taylor. Thank you so much for joining us here today. How are you doing?
Barbara: I’m doing very well. A pleasure to be here, talking about porpoises.
Lauren: thank you so much. I actually was doing some Googling of you, I can see you have a lot of experience working with porpoises in particular.
Barbara: I do I do. I started working with porpoises in 1980, which sadly is 40 years ago.
Lauren: It’s not that long ago. That’s exciting. So what was your first bit of work that you did?
Barbara: I started working, uh, in Glacier Bay, Alaska with Harbor porpoise, and it was on a shoestring budget. We had the couple of hundred dollars for an entire season and, uh, Kayak to our study sites and the, yeah, I got to know the beasts to up close and personal and that’s, that’s the way that you should meet them.
Lauren: Yeah, from what I hear, it’s actually pretty difficult to study Harbor porpoises up close and personal because they tend to be rather cryptic.
Barbara: Well, most of my studies were actually from land using binoculars, so up high on the mountain sides and the glacial fjords. And so you’ve got very good looks at them. And of course they had no reason to be shy of you because they had no idea you were spying on them.
Lauren: And with your work up in Alaska, what was your main focus?
Barbara: Uh, with the porpoises, we were doing some of the very first, very basic, uh, research on there. Hadn’t been any studies done on them. And they knew at the time in 1980 that they had disappeared from places like. Uh, Puget Sound and a San Francisco Bay, and they didn’t know why. And they were concerned that they were very sensitive animals and this was national park that I was working in.
And so we came in and did some of the very first studies and, we didn’t know really basic things like where they migratory, how did they spend their time? When did they have their calves? So it was doing very, uh, basic biology in terms of learning about these animals. And, that’s the kind of thing that still needs to be done today um, in very large parts of the world.
Lauren: Absolutely. And did you ever find out why they were disappearing in some parts of their range?
Barbara: We sure did. And of course it’s going to bear very heavily on vaquita- it’s gillnets. Um, and, and that’s why they were actually doing well, um, in the national park, because there was no fishing allowed in the national park. Um, so you know, that I, I would expect they’re still doing well there today, but there are large parts of Alaska where you don’t find Harbor porpoises. And I always wondered why. Um, and then I started to learn more about porpoises and their vulnerability to gillnets and, uh, you know, what we were seeing and what looks like a pristine habitat, um, was probably animals that were depleted in probably the 1960s and 1970s, um, before anybody really started even looking.
Lauren: You’re so used to seeing maybe Epic bowhead whales come by, but a little sneaky porpoise is not really, they don’t attract as much attention as they should, I guess.
Barbara: Well, they, are, generally pretty shy and reclusive animals. And so they don’t come over and ride on the bow. They don’t jump out of the water the way the dolphins do. And so they. They tend to get, uh, ignored, um, except in a few cases, there’s the Dall’s porpoise, which is super flashy and does like to ride on the bows of boats.
And it’s actually, uh, oddly part of the interesting mystery about why, vaquitas turned out to be not suitable for captivity was that we figured they were be more like Harbor porpoise than like Dall’s porpoise. But, uh, in fact, they turned out to be a little bit more like Dall’s porpoise.
So, so there’s, it’s just a lesson that every species has its own unique characteristics, and it’s hard to take what you learned from one and apply it to another.
Lauren: I know that lots of facilities have had Harbor porpoises in the past. What is it specifically about Dall’s porpoises and in turn I guess vaquita from what you’ve discovered, why is it that they don’t seem to do well in human care? Do we, do we understand that?
Barbara: No, we don’t understand that. Um, and that is one of the lessons I learned from, uh, vaquita is that we don’t understand very much okay. About how to, if you have to, how to take care of, of porpoises or dolphins for that matter. Um, and it turns out that lots of mammals their reaction to being captured and handled by people is to go into shock, basically capture myopathy in medical terms.
Um, and with animals like giraffes and antelopes they’ve they figured out different ways. As I say, different for every species to be able to make it to the animal, doesn’t have this cascading effect that basically terminally damages the muscles in their heart and causes heart failure and they die. And Dall’s porpoises, which as I say, have all of the appearances of not being, so shy, you know, they come over.
They, I remember when I bought my sailboat and in Alaska, you could sit on the bow of the sailboat and the Dall’s porpoises would be riding down below, looking up at you and you could put your foot right down and touch them. And they would look at you. It was like, Oh, this is a pretty cool animal, but when they try to capture them to tag them, they immediately start to go in shock and they just have to release them.
And they’ve never figured out any way to be able to get any other reaction from Dall’s porpoises. And it seems to be a very, um, difficult nut to crack, um, for veterinarians to figure out how to deal with animals that naturally start to go into shock because cetaceans, all of them breathe voluntarily. Of course, they spend most of their life under the water.
Lauren: The concept of cetaceans breathing voluntarily is such a cool thing because for us as humans, we don’t have to think about breathing. Your medulla, oblongata. It’s a part of your brain that controls your survival functions, like your heart rate and breathing. Uh, it just works and it tells your body to breathe all the time.
Barbara: So when you go to sleep, you don’t want to be opening your blow hole and drowning. And so they’re, you can’t give them the kind of relaxing drugs that they give to other animals that just completely put them under because with the cetacean, they’d stop breathing. So it’s, it’s still something that the veterinarians are, um, really at the very most basic levels of learning about how to understand and care for these animals.
And as I say, you don’t really want to be in the position of having to translocate and rescue animals, but sadly, there are more and more cases where that’s just a necessary thing, unless you’re willing to surrender to, leaving them to extinction.
Lauren: Right. It’s, it’s hard to even imagine just like you say, surrendering and letting it, letting it happen. And I guess, I guess maybe before we get to vaquita, you have some experience working with another species of cetacean that unfortunately did go that way.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work on the baiji at all?
Barbara: Yeah, I had the unfortunate experience of going as one of the scientific, survey experts to China in. 2006. Um, we started in Wuhan and we covered the distribution of the Chinese river dolphin with visually with two ships and acoustically. Um, so we covered their entire distribution four times and we didn’t find any.
The objective of the survey was to find the last one so that they could be taken into these semi-natural reserve Oxbow lakes, but we were too late. They were already gone. And it was a truly shocking thing to be a witness to extinction. To realize that this species that’s been on planet earth for over 30 million years, blinked out while no one was watching.
And so we were very determined not to let that happen with vaquita. And unfortunately, um, things are headed in the same direction, even though we’re watching.
Lauren: Right. I’m so sorry. And I guess that leads to my next question of, is that part of how you got your start or your foot in the door with the vaquita project? Was your experience with porpoises up in Alaska, as well as the work on the baiji project?
An introduction to Vaquita/Lorenzo
Barbara: Actually, no. The reason I got started working on the vaquita, well, two things. One of my chapters in my PhD thesis was actually about how conservation biology needed to shift the burden of proof in whether or not animals were declining or not.
Lauren: The burden of proof is something we hear about in law, but also in science. And it means that it’s the researcher’s responsibility to prove their hypothesis. So the burden of proof is on the researcher. For a species like vaquita. Researchers need to prove that they are disappearing, which in itself is a time-consuming process and study that has to be done. By the time you can finally prove a species is declining. It’s often too late for that species. Barbara also talked about how for vaquita, their numbers were already so small that statistically there wouldn’t be enough data to clearly show that yes, they are declining. The degree of precision needed in abundance estimates would actually delay the positive conservation action vaquita so desperately need.
Barbara: And so I wrote this paper, you know, many years ago, as I say, I think it was published in like 97 or something. And then shortly after that, Lorenzo walked into my office and he was at the time getting his PhD and had done some of the very initial genetic work. And he came into my office office and said, I understand you work on genetics and you.
Work on statistical power. And I’m really, really interested in investigating whether not finding any genetic variability in this marker whether we can say that the animal is doomed to extinction because it doesn’t have genetic variability or whether there’s some other reason to explain why they don’t have genetic variability in that marker.
Genetic Markers and what they mean
Lauren: So what exactly is a genetic marker? According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, a genetic marker is a DNA sequence with a known physical location on a chromosome. So in humans, genetic markers can be used to help identify inherited diseases and potentially find treatments.
Barbara: And so that’s actually, when I got started working with vaquita was, um, actually years before I actually had ever seen one. And Lorenzo had no idea that I was a porpoise person. So it was just a complete coincidence.
Lauren: So with the genetics that you’re talking about was it, they had sequenced the vaquita DNA and they were noticing that there wasn’t a lot of variation in the individuals they were finding?
Barbara: Exactly. So. With the porpoises, dolphin and whales, a really useful marker is in the mitochondrial DNA. That’s the, the little, um, organelle that we all inherit from our mothers, and it’s a really good evolutionary marker. Um, and it’s been extremely useful in understanding, um, everything from taxonomy down to, uh, population structure. And so it’s one of the first markers that you look at. And so Lorenzo looked at this, he had about 30 individuals and they all had identical markers for this control region of the mitochondrial DNA. So basically it’s like, they all had the last name and it is very much like a family name because you, you inherit it, you know, without any changes. So, you know, if you’re a Taylor, like I am, you know, your offspring would be a Taylor. Well, if there was paternal name inheritance, but anyway, point is it’s like inheriting a family name. And so it’s, they all had the, basically the same name. And the question was, how did that come about?
Did it come about because they had… The population had lost all of their, um, genetic variability because of the decline because of fisheries or is it something that they didn’t have to begin with? And so that was the question that Lorenzo and I set out to address.
Lauren: So, what did you end up finding with that? I’m trying to picture if you had DNA from animals from years and years ago, if you could like check it against that, or if you were able to come up with a, an answer for that.
Barbara: So at that point in time I was doing a lot of computer modeling of how would you end up with this genetic signature? And so we knew that vaquitas only lived in this small area and had never, there’s never been any evidence that they have lived in recent times outside that area, no skeletal materials, all in this small area, up in the Northern Gulf of California. And so I said, well, you know, what, if that was a really good habitat, which it is. And we look at a similar situation for harbour porpoise. We find a similar area and we take the genetic diversity from that area, which turned out to be Monterey Bay and I modeled what happens if we put it through a rapid decline from, let’s say around 4,000 individuals to what we thought at the time, maybe 300 vaquitas. We now know that it was more than that, but at any rate, if you take it down rapidly, what happens to the genetic signature?
And so you get a bunch of different family names, but you’d get some common family names and some rare family names. And what happens when you take that population down very quickly is that you lose all the rare and uncommon family names, but the common family names actually become more common.
If you got to a situation where you had 50, 50, you know, of heads and tails and you think, all right, I’m going to flip this 300 times. What are the chances? You’ll get all heads. You know, they’re like zero, you know? And so it’s, it’s really unusual and it takes a really long time to go and basically lose that much diversity.
And so what we were able to conclude yeah. Is that this low genetic diversity that we saw, wasn’t a result of fishing in the last 40 years. It was something that had happened a long, long time ago. And that. vaquitas were, it was evidence that they were a naturally rare species. So recently actually from the, the two individuals that we captured just a few years ago in 2017. We were able to maintain live tissue cultures in the San Diego frozen zoo and from this really, really high quality DNA, we were able to produce the entire genome of vaquitas. And we found that that low variability is very evenly spread throughout the whole genome. And there’s some very sophisticated genetic methods that, that basically are able to look at the history of what the population size must have looked like through time to have that low of a genetic diversity throughout the whole genome.
And what the genetics suggests is that they have been at the low levels, probably a couple of thousand of individuals for about 200,000 years. So it, it confirmed what we had done, you know, with some very simple computer models, 20, some years ago that vaquitas, are a naturally rare population and, and weirdly enough, in some senses, that’s really good news.
What vaquita genetics mean
Barbara: Because, what geneticists worry about, um, with endangered populations is two things. One that if you really reduce the genetic variability, it basically gives them less ability to meet new challenges like diseases or major changes in their habitat . And the second thing they worry about, and this is the bigger thing with small populations is what’s called inbreeding depression.
Inbreeding depression depresses your fitness. So you’ll be less fit than your parents. And sometimes it can actually be a lethal thing. So it turns out that all of us humans on average, we carry in our genome five genes that if we had two copies of the same thing it would kill us. And that’s called a lethal gene. And it’s one of the reasons why, uh, brothers and sisters or even cousins, shouldn’t be mating together because you’ll have a high chance of getting two copies of these lethal genes. And if you only have one of them, Because the, these lethal genes are often recessive genes, then you don’t express it.
The dominant gene does its dominant thing and you don’t express whatever the bad thing is that’s lethal.
Well, what happens if a population is naturally small for a really long time? Well, what happens is that sometimes you’ll get mating between pretty close relatives and you’ll get two of these lethal genes. And what happens is that individual dies. So those genes are purged out of the population because when they’re expressed that individual doesn’t reproduce, they die. And so.
Lauren: And the individual talking about would be the offspring of those two that would die.
Barbara: Right. Let’s say the offspring of an accidental brother, sister mating gets two of these genes. It’s lethal. They die, they don’t reproduce. And so those genes are taken out of the gene pool. And so It’s called purging the genetic load. And so populations that have been at small size for 200,000 years, Um, if they had any of those genes in the population, they’ve probably been purged out long ago. So they actually, it’s sort of a small population cleaning mechanism, if you want to call it that.
Lauren: Oh, that’s really fascinating.
Barbara: So, so. If a population can survive, that they’ve purged out a lot of these bad genes. And what happens when you have populations that used to be like a very high levels. Like if you consider, like I’m quite close right now to the national bison range.
So there were millions of bison in North America and they were hunted very rapidly and taken down from millions to hundreds . And so they carried lots of these lethal genes with them and, those populations are very vulnerable to inbreeding depression.
But these naturally small populations that have lived with being small for many, many generations, they’re actually less vulnerable. So of all the things that I lose sleep over about vaquita. The one thing I don’t lose sleep over is their genetic situation because, um, apparently they’ve been doing just fine at these low levels for at least 200,000 years.
San Diego Frozen Zoo
Lauren: I have to say that after talking to Barbara about the genetics of the vaquita, I found myself experiencing more hope than I thought I would in recording these episodes. And so hopefully you are also feeling that. I also remember that Barbara had experience working with that frozen zoo collection, and I wanted to ask her more about it.
Barbara: We have the largest collection in the world, actually of a genetic samples, tissue samples from Marine mammals all over the world that our laboratory in San Diego and in the collection in our minus 80 degree freezer, we actually have vaquitas from the 1980′ s from the 1990s or from the 2000’s.
And then from the last decade, so, because we have this beautiful genome. Now we can take these old samples, which are sort of degraded so that when you amplify the genetic pieces up, it’s like you’ve got a puzzle with lots of little pieces and you need to be able to put it together. You need the picture to be able to assemble the puzzle.
And we’ll be able to look empirically and say, have they lost any genetic variability from the 1980s to 2020?
Lauren: And is that something that people are working on right now is comparing the 1980 samples to the current samples?.
Barbara: It is indeed indeed. So those are all being assembled as we speak. We had started doing this work before 2017 because we were anticipating that we would be the managing animals in a captive or semi captive situation. And we would need to, you know, manage them very carefully to maintain as much genetic diversity as they have.
One of the questions that Lorenzo came into my office with 25 years ago was “people are saying that this species is doomed and that we shouldn’t invest all of the political capital and literal pesos into trying to save the species because it’s already doomed because it doesn’t have any genetic diversity”.
And I still commonly get that as a question today of, well, aren’t, vaquita doomed because of their genetics. You know, isn’t every species doomed once they get below a hundred individuals. And now we’re finding more and more cases where these naturally rare species have, are just, they’re doing just fine, you know?
And they’ve been doing fine for, I mean, we went out last October and, uh, we saw almost every sighting we had was had a calf in it or a small individual. And every animal that we saw was nice and fat. So we don’t see any evidence that the vaquitas couldn’t recover if we just gave them a chance.
Lauren: Wow. We’ve been talking in all of the interviews that we’ve done so far. I’ve been trying to maintain that glimmer of hope because. Through all of my biology I’ve ever taken. That’s exactly what I learned was below a certain number.
You’d get that bottleneck. You get this genetic problem, but it’s so fascinating that you found that here’s a species that they’ve had low genetic variability for all of this time. They’re doing just fine. Even when you think, you know, everything in the case of vaquita they’re disappearing, it shows why it’s so important to have that research, to find out, hold on, there’s actually hope here.
And this is why, and this is why it’s worth it to continue to try to protect them. They actually do stand a chance.
Northern Elephant Seal Story
Barbara: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the most wonderful examples out there, and this is a case where it was an natually abundant species. So the Northern elephant seal was completely extirpated out of all of the coastal areas and completely out of California. And they were only, found on Guadalupe Island off of Mexico.
What exactly is extirpated? It means to be locally extinct. So a species could be extinct in one part of its range, but still found somewhere else. So it’s not technically officially gone, but it is losing its range.
Nobody knows exactly how many individuals there were, but the estimates are somewhere in the tens of animals, maybe 30 animals. And they just stopped hunting them. Right. That’s all they did. There was no active management. So this is a completely wild population. They stop hunting them. They’re in this remote island location.
And today there are hundreds of thousands of Northern elephant seals.
Barbara: And, they show extremely low genetic diversity. They don’t show any adverse effects of that. So, of course, We worry about maintaining as much genetic diversity as we can, because we’re throwing a lot of curve balls at these animals right now, climate change, I mean, you want to give them every possible advantage that you can, um, by maintaining genetic diversity. But the flip side of that coin is. You shouldn’t give up on them because they have low genetic diversity because we have these amazing examples of animals that have come back from tens of animals.
The most extreme case is the New Zealand Robin, which came back from two animals and is now doing okay in the wild, it’s really inspiring and if you do give up hope, it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.
Lauren: I’ve been wanting to ask someone about the. The frozen zoo of all of the DNA that’s been collected and you’re the perfect person to ask but do we know how many samples of vaquita DNA exists? So how many different individuals are in that collection?
Barbara: Well, sadly, there’s only the two.
So, so the frozen zoo was not set up for this purpose and, and it’s a really important collection, but the reason that it was set up, let’s take the case of the California condor. So when they brought Condors out of the wild, there were only eight individuals that were left in the wild, but they had a number of individuals that they had stolen their eggs from. I know this sounds weird, but you know, what they, what they, what they discovered is, and they discovered just by accident by watching them in the wild is that if, uh, Let’s say a Raven came in and stole an egg of a condor from the nest that the Condors would re-lay the egg.
Right. And they’d still raise the same number of chicks. So some biologists with tremendous foresight thought, this is our chance. Let’s go in early in the season. Take some eggs, the adults will re-lay the eggs and we’ll raise the eggs in captivity with condor puppets. Anyway, the point is that they were able to, um, maintain a lot more genetic diversity because they did that.
But because by the time they finally made the decision to take them out into the wild, um, there were like, no functional male, female pairs left in the wild and they had these anyway, I digress. The point is, is that some of them never bred, right? They never left any their genes behind and what they were able to do by saving the live tissue is to be able to keep that individual’s genes alive, even though they never bred. And, and for, for individuals where they’re actually able to save either eggs or sperm, they can actually use that, and they, they do do this with the animals were, um, like mammals where it’s a little bit easier to do, in vitro fertilization and so forth.
So, so the idea was to have that bank there be keeping the genes of all of these individuals alive to put into live individuals. Right. It wasn’t to be able to raise a species from dead. Right.
Lauren: I think that’s my misunderstanding was like, well, you have all this DNA. It’s like a frozen ark. You can create from the DNA that you have. I have, but…
Barbara: right. Well, you know, and, and it could be, it could be, you know, uh, but I think for a cetacean for a porpoise. That is really, really, really science fiction. And I had to do a lot yeah. Of thinking about this when we were facing, going out in the field and taking these animals into captivity and reading, about all of the difficulties that they had.
Re-introducing, uh, you know, black-footed ferrets and Condors and, um, you know, Mexican red wolves and all that, these species where they had to learn to be wild again. Right. And they had to learn to deal with predators and you know, with a terrestrial species, we, we are a terrestrial species.
So we sort of understand a lot more about what are the cues that black-footed ferret is going to use to avoid being taken out by a great horned owl. Well, okay. We can train them by like making stuffed owls and flying it at them and making them afraid and giving them shocks. I mean, I had to do all these things so that these animals could, you know, survive in the wild. Well, how do you teach a porpoise to avoid a great white shark or a killer whale, you know, I mean, that’s, it’s really, uh, difficult to imagine, um, how, how we would be able to do that. I mean, we were willing to do it. It’s better than letting a species go extinct, but it’s still extremely difficult.
And then the thought of doing that from, uh, a surrogate species. I mean, I don’t know what you do with the vaquita. I mean, there’s no other species that’s like them. So if you have the animals that cells frozen in the frozen zoo, what are you going to do with them? You know, I mean, they still have to grow up inside some sort of porpoise and then they have to learn how to deal with things in the wild.
Anyway, with the, vaquitas, unfortunately, it has to be live tissue. So there is only live tissue from two vaquitas and they’re both females. So, so right now that is not an option, but whether it was ever an option, I mean, it’s always better to have something and maybe science fiction will come true, but we, I have not been able to get live tissue from a male, vaquita.
And so I think that the chances of our being able to do that at this point are vanishingly small.
Lauren: I still see hope, which I appreciate, but yeah, it’s, it’s, um, it’s good to temper that with reality. And, and as much as we have come so far with our science and ability to do amazing things that yeah, that science fiction side of things is still a little unattainable at this time.
Barbara’s role in the Vaquita project
So you were on the project in 2017 when folks were down, uh, trying to save the vaquita. Um, while you were there with that, your role was to focus on the genetic side of things, or did you have kind of a couple of roles that you played down there?
Barbara: Yeah, no, actually it was, uh, there was a, well, there were 90 scientists out in the field. Um, and there was, uh, a steering committee that like put together the whole thing. And I have been co-leads on the surveys for vaquitas. And so basically I am the chief scientists on the, on the big ship. And so that’s what I was in this context as well.
So it was a more complicated operation than usual for, because we, um, not only had to, you know, count them, we weren’t actually there to count them. We had to track them and be able to get the team team that was doing the capture in the right place at the right time. So, so anyway, I was out on the big ship the whole time with our are amazing expert observers who, uh, have spectacular eyes and have been tracking vaquita since 1997.
So, uh, they’re, they’re a very special group of, of people.
Lauren: That’s so exciting. So you got to be a part of that whole process. And, you know, after we’ve talked to a couple of the other folks, we know that obviously the attempt to collect individuals from the ocean was suspended when the one passed away and knowing that there was such a small population to begin with.
Um, I know that you are a part of the IUCN. Uh, cetacean specialist group is, does that still relate back to vaquita and any work that is still ongoing to protective the vaquita?
Barbara: In a way. So, there, there are two main efforts right now in the field for vaquita. One of them, and I think the most important one of them is the net removal operations, um, that have been conducted by, uh, the sea shepherd conservation society. In their operation, Milagro and by a private foundation, the Museo de Ballenas. And you know, they’ve been out there pulling out net after net, after net, and I, I truly believe that had they not been out there removing nets, we would not have vaquitas with us today. So yeah, that’s been an extremely important operation. And then I’ve been, um, tightly connected with the acoustic monitoring.
And now unfortunately, because the devices that we use to record vaquitas are being removed or stolen we’ve had to curtail the acoustic monitoring. And so instead we’ve been going, going out and, uh, taking photographs and documenting how the last of the vaquitas, are doing in terms of health and having calves, just basically to keep reminding people that they’re, they’re still out there.
Um, and to learn as much as we can about how they’re doing. And I have to say this last year out there was, I mean, all of us are sort of afraid that we’re not going to find any, um, it’s always a sort of a scary thing, you know, going out there. And when we went out this last time, um, we saw vaquitas on every day that we had the weather that you need to be able to see vaquitas. So we had like, four days of decent weather. Um, and we saw this surprising number of calves. Um, and the other thing that was interesting about these individuals is that the ones where we’ve been able to get good photographs, which is a very difficult thing to do, the reason that we’re able to identify individuals is because they have.
Um, scars and notches in their dorsal fin. And they get those from having been entangled in nets already. And you know, it wasn’t until I started looking closely at those photographs that I realized that, of course these are not a random selection of all the vaquitas that ever existed. These are the survivors. These are the ones today because they’ve managed to survive this spider web of lethal nets out there. And it gave me more hope that, we are seeing these robust females out there that are particularly good at avoiding boats and avoiding nets. Um, and we saw more than we expected to see.
I mean, it’s, it’s a shocking thing for me to, you know, be saying hooray, we saw 10 vaquitas, but you know, when you’re expecting to see zero or three, 10 sounds pretty darn good. Especially when they’ve got three calves with them. So, um, Yeah. I mean, as I say, they can come back from that if you just give them a chance.
Lauren: And those ten individuals that you saw, they were all unique individuals like you didn’t see one twice because you were looking at that identification.
Barbara: So that’s an excellent question. Um, we’re always having to break new ground with vaquita it seems like, and this is, this is, uh, a similar case where, you know, we went from doing these big visual surveys that had to be combined with acoustic surveys, which is sort of cutting edge stuff.
Then we went to doing these really intensive acoustic monitoring, which was all cutting edge stuff. Um, and. And now that those tools have been sort of taken away from us. And so we’re doing the best that we can with what are not ideal circumstances. So not all the individuals are marked.
And of course the young individuals, the calves, they are definitely not marked. Um, and, you know, thank goodness they’re avoiding us, you know, so it’s really, you know, they were shy before, but these remaining vaquita are very good at elluding boats. And so it’s very difficult to get photographs of them. And then you have the weather working against you.
You know, you have a couple of good days, you feel like you can sort of figure out which ones that those individuals match other individuals, and then you get 10 days of wind. And then, you know, you get a sighting that’s far away. Is that the same one or a different one? So it is not a trivial thing by any means.
And so now Lorenzo and I are collaborating with some folks that are, um, experts in what’s called expert elicitation EE, or sometimes it’s called structured expert decision-making um, and we are convening all of our observers virtually and at the end of August, early September. And we’re going to go through an exercise in estimating the number of individuals from last year, we, we, we did this already, but not with this group from St. Andrew’s. So they’re going to lead us through a different process, and then we’re going to use that training to become better at estimating the number of vaquitas remaining in the areas where we’re looking. Um, if we get a chance to go out again, uh, next fall or spring. Of course, all of this now is also being driven by the pandemic. So that’s, that’s not helping things either.
Acoustic monitoring and C pods
Lauren: The acoustic monitoring. Is that something that floats at the surface or is that something that you have divers set up deeper underwater?
Barbara: Oh, neither actually. So, um, In, uh, when we came back from finding no baiji in the Yangtze, um, we were very determined to not let vaquita go silently into this good night. And we needed better method than doing that surveys because they were and are super expensive. It’s cost about $3 million to do a vaquita visual slash acoustic survey.
So in 2008, we brought in acoustic experts from all over the world, from Japan, from, um, Great Britain , US, um, and we use several different acoustic devices and we went out and tested them while we were doing a big survey. Um, and I have found which one worked best in the special circumstances with a special creature vaquitas.
And we found that, um, the. Uh, C pod, which is a passive acoustic monitoring device that, um, it was invented by Nick Tregenza in Cornwall worked great. Um, and so, so we convened a team of scientists to design this grid to be able to detect trends and abundance annually. And our objective at the time, this is back in 2008 was to show the recovery of vaquitas because Mexico had just put in the vaquita refuge and was actually enforcing it.
And the government of Mexico wanted to be able to detect that the vaquitas were recovering within a five year period. So we designed the acoustic grid to be able to address that question and what we found instead was that vaquitas were collapsing. And it was the first really strong evidence, um, of the totoaba of fishery taking off was the collapse of, of vaquitas as, I mean, everyone in town knew that totoaba fishing was starting up again, but we had no idea what a devastating effect it was having on vaquitas. And so, so anyway, that’s how we discovered it was through the acoustic monitoring program. And we’ve been able to keep that going annually every year up until just this past year.
So, so basically a C pod is a, uh, like a PVC tube. That’s about a meter long and about a 15 centimeters in diameter. And originally, we only put them down on the, on the bottom and they can stay down for like three months and it records the time and every time it hears a vaquita click. So basically it detects porpoises. It is a porpoise detector. Um, and so you can leave them out there for three months. So every year we had a grid of 48 of these things that are sunk to the bottom. And so we’d get 3000 days of data every year. And in the early days they had sort of dual anchors with a polypropylene rope and that they would go out and pull them up with a grappling hook.
The vaquita monitoring acoustic period was in the summer when there’s almost no fishing activity. And it’s definitely not the period when the totoaba fishermen are out, which is in the winter.
So we were able to do it many years with the surface markers, even though the, um, C pod is suspended, sort of midway in the, in the water column. And it’s very shallow water there. It’s only like 10 to 20 meters deep. So, so anyway, that worked very well for many years. But recently, um, There has been active tinkering or taking of even though there’s no fishing going on, um, of taking the C pods away. So we’ve lost a lot of them, which are very valuable in and of themselves. And of course they’ve got data on them. So if they’re stolen, it it’s sort of, uh, takes, takes our ability to use that as a, as a method to monitor the animals away, unfortunately,
Lauren: So, not only have you lost the value of these C pods, the ones that are now gone also have data on them that you basically can’t recover.
Barbara: Of course. Yep. So there, yeah, I know. Definitely valuable.
Lauren: I’m so sorry.
Barbara: Yeah. Yeah. It’s always, it’s always really sad and frustrating thing. And you know, most of the C pods now are, are put. Put out and brought back in by, um, the local fishermen who there’s a group of like core fishermen. Who’ve just been tremendous. They were the fishermen who wanted to use alternative gears to begin with, and basically never got the opportunity to do that because the fisheries department never gave them permits. And so here were the guys who were the most progressive guys and, um, Lorenzo and Armando have been employing them doing the C pod work for a number of years now.
And now, even that has gone. So it’s, it’s a triple punch in the gut.
Barbara’s work with NOAA AND history of cetacean research
Lauren: So you work with NOAA. Does NOAA actively do any work with vaquita at all or, or porpoises in general?
Barbara: Um, yeah, so originally, um, I think the very first big survey, uh, of vaquita was done as part of, uh, NOAA and collaborative surveys that were done at the Eastern tropical Pacific. And in fact that the laboratory where I work. The program for, um, whales and dolphins and porpoises really got it’s start in the whole tuna dolphin conflict.
And so there was a lot of work in International waters because the tuna fleet was, is, um, worked off of Mexico and all the way down Central America. And as part of that, they, they did a survey of the Gulf. And so got some of the first sort of big ship, um, vaquita data, I think in like 1993. Um, and it meant that our laboratory has really specialized in doing these big ship surveys. I mean, developed a lot of the, the methodology to be able to come up with abundance estimates and developed, uh, a group of observers, um, who are really top level observers. So, so NOAA had the skills, and they also had the interest. and, The other side that a lot of people don’t understand is that from, I would say about the early nineties, uh, up until the early two thousands, um, the largest number of nets in the water, where vaquitas are, were set for shrimp. And about 80% of that shrimp is sold in the US, so the US consumers were unknowingly very directly contributing to the demise of vaquitas and the vaquitas are also on the US endangered species list. And so it made sense since we are part of the problem to be part of the solution as well. Well, um, but I would yeah say that support for using big NOAA ships, um, no longer exists. And fortunately, Mexico has been able to step up and you know, now. Folks like myself basically are there because we have the experience. And there’s no chance to really train new people and looking for vaquitas because there’s so few of them left.
So, so it’s down to sort of this, uh, you know, probably about 20 of us or so who are experienced vaquita observers and, uh, are important for being able to find the animals and lend consistency to the, to the data.
Lauren: It’s so interesting to think that they’re even harder to see than say, like the sperm whale in the middle of the ocean.
Barbara: They are indeed they’re small, they’re shy. We had repeated incidents when we had 90 eyes and 90 pairs of eyes out on the water looking for, you know, these vaquitas that we last saw them surface, like right in the middle of all of our vessels. And they would just give us the slip and in Spanish they’re, you know, call, call the phantasma; ghosts. And it’s very appropriate. I, they are so good at just slipping away when they want to.
Lauren: Well, and I guess the ones that you’re looking for are the ones that have survived all these pressures. And so you’ve kind of got the best of the best ghosts out in the water that you’re trying to spot.
Barbara: Yep. That’s right. That’s absolutely right.
Lauren: In talking to Barbara, it really got me thinking about how here’s a species that we’ve been looking at so closely since the nineties, at least, and paying attention to, and we’re still seeing this loss. And it really got me thinking about all of the other species and ecosystems and environments out there where there is no research happening at all. Overall, there’s just very little known. So with that in mind, how do we move forward considering what we have learned from the vaquita conservation efforts?
Taking the lessons learned from vaquita to protect other species
Barbara: As the red list authority for all of the dolphins and porpoises and whales. I read all the assessments that go into the IUCN red list. And one of the most shocking ones to me was Burmeister’s porpoise. So this is, uh, a little porpoise that, has a range from Peru in the Pacific, all the way around the tip of South America and up to about Uruguay in the Atlantic. Um, and when I read the assessment, I was shocked to read first of all, there has been, never been a single abundance estimate anywhere in their range ever, ever.
And then on top of that, they have been recorded since the 1990s. As the most commonly killed animal in gillnets in Peru. And on top of that, there’s a genetic study that shows that the animals in Peru seem to be very different from the animals that are Argentina and around up into the Atlantic. So they could be a different sub species.
So, you know, it just, it makes your jaw drop at how ignorant we are about the very basic things that you need to know about species to manage them effectively and how bad things could already be. Gillnetting has been going on there at high levels for decades, and they’re still not even been a single abundance estimate.
So yeah. you worried. I mean, it makes you, I want to, uh, you know, find some way of getting more focus on the animals that you know, are vulnerable, which all the porpoises are. Um, and start getting this basic information because without that you won’t have the political will to be able to, uh, do any effective conservation.
Lauren: I’m really happy that in chatting with you, it’s become apparent that there is a lot of hope. Um, whether it’s in, you know, the recovery plan of the Finless porpoise, or even in the lack of genetic diversity in vaquita and that being a part of their story. Um, I really want to thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing your story and, um, okay. Please keep on fighting the good fight for us.
Barbara: Well, my pleasure to talk with you. And I’m so happy that vaquita is, and porpoises in general are getting a podcast.
Lauren: Hey, me too. We are all about talking about these cute little puffing pigs or all the different names they have everywhere. Okay.
Barbara: are indeed puffing pigs, quite, quite cute pigs I have to say
Lauren: The cutest.
Once again, I want to send out a massive thank you to Dr. Barbara Taylor for taking the time to, uh, sit down and talk with me about her experience. Working with porpoises from Alaska, all the way down to the vaquita and globally. I mean, her experiences is vast. Um, it was really exciting too, to understand the genetic story of the vaquita. That was something I was not expecting. So I hope you enjoyed that as well.
I also want to let our listeners know that if you’re interested in reading Barbara’s research. We are going to be including links for that at the end of this episode.
Lauren: I also want to give a shout out to Marcus Wernicke he’s the one that edits these episodes and makes them sound amazing. So thank you so much, Marcus. I also want to let you know that coming up on July 24th, that’s International Save the Vaquita Day. We are going to be having a live episode that day. There’s going to be art happening that day. And there’s going to be youth activists who are involved in conservation efforts around the world, and they’re going to be sharing their stories as well along with researchers. So I highly encourage you to join us. You can find out more at porpoise.org or you can check out the vivavaquita.org website.
Thank you so much for listening and on behalf of myself and our team, I hope you have a wonderful day and go fluke and learn something.