Drones Could Help Save the World’s Smallest Porpoise
Mexico deploys robots to stop illegal fishing
The vaquita is one of the world’s rarest species—and one of the closest to going extinct. But there’s a plan to save the diminutive Mexican porpoise. A plan that involves drones.
As it turns out, Mexico has a fair number of drones—and even makes its own.
The vaquita—the name means “little cow” in Spanish—is the world’s smallest cetacean and lives only in the northern end of the Gulf of California in western Mexico. A full-grown vaquita is four feet long.
There are just 97 vaquitas left, down from 200 in 2012.
The problem is not with the porpoises themselves, but with another species that shares the viaquitas’ Gulf of California habitat—the totoaba. Many Chinese believe totoabas’ swim bladders, boiled in soup, boost fertility and improve skin.
They don’t—but that hasn’t stopped Mexican fishermen and Chinese middlemen from relentlessly catching the endangered totoabas with long gillnets. A single totoaba bladder sells for $14,000.
The vaquitas also get caught in the nets and die. The tiny porpoises breed too slowly for the population to make good the gillnets’ awful toll. At the current death rate, the vaquita could vanish in just four years.
“It’s ridiculous that China’s appetite for fish bladder soup may cause two endangered species to go extinct,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Thing is, Mexican law and international conventions already protect the totoaba and the vaquita. But with too few boats and planes, authorities have struggled to enforce the law.
With the vaquitas fast disappearing and pressure increasing from environmental groups, that could change soon. “Eight navy speedboats are scheduled for delivery in the northern gulf over the next few weeks, and more are expected next year,” The New York Times reported in September.
“The government will start aerial monitoring with two light planes and eventually drones,” the Times continued, citing Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, an undersecretary with the Mexican Environment Ministry.
There’s no shortage of drones that could do the job. The Mexican air force possesses three Israeli-made Hermes unmanned aerial vehicles plus copies of the smaller Ehécatl and Gavilán drones, both products of Hydra Technologies of Mexico.
Other Mexican agencies also operate Hydra’s UAVs. The 120-pound Ehécatl can orbit with cameras for up to eight hours. The 10-pound Gavilán flies for 90 minutes.
Of course, robots are no panacea. “I don’t trivialize how difficult it will be,” Dr. Taylor, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said of efforts to save the vaquita. “These guys making millions of dollars trafficking in endangered species are not going to go quietly.”
But at least now someone will be watching.