Mexican Drones Take Flight to Save the World’s Most Endangered Sea Mammal
The vaquita is almost extinct
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Three surveillance drones belonging to the Mexican navy are flying over the northern Gulf of California. They’re not searching for drug traffickers in go-fast boats, but poachers who are rapidly driving the world’s most endangered maritime mammal to extinction.
The vaquita, or “little cow,” is a small porpoise that lives exclusively in the northern corner of the Gulf of California. Fishermen hunting totoabas — a large fish which also lives in the region — for their swim bladders have killed dozens of vaquitas by indiscriminately ensnaring them in their gillnets.
The totoaba bladders are a valuable commodity in China, where they are stockpiled as investments and blended into a tonic soup.
There are around 60 vaquitas still alive, according to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, or CIRVA in its Spanish acronym. That’s down from 97 in 2014 and 200 in 2012. The real number could be lower.
“The choice is simple and stark,” CIRVA warned in a May 2016 report. “Either gillnetting in the upper gulf ends, or the vaquita becomes extinct within a very short time.”
This summer, Mexican Pres. Enrique Peña Nieto extended a two-year moratorium on gillnets in the vaquita region into a permanent ban. Then Mexico began deploying Arcturus T-20 JUMP drones in late July, a plan dating back to 2014.
The T-20 is a medium-range drone first manufactured in the United States for the U.S. military. It has a maximum altitude of 15,000 feet, a flight time of 16 hours and a range of more than 500 miles, which is enough endurance to patrol the entire habitat.
The drone is 2.8 meters long and 5.2 meters wide and takes off from a pneumatic launcher. But Mexico’s T-20 JUMP variant also includes rotors, allowing the machine to take off and land vertically.
And the T-20s feature electro-optical and infrared sensors, allowing them to see at night. The drones will allow “a greater number of low-cost operations with greater permanence in the Gulf of California, along with a flexibility in use and stealth deployment,” Mexican navy secretary Adm. Vidal Francisco Soberón Sanz said.
To be sure, the Mexican military possesses more drones, including Ehécatls and Gaviláns. But the waters are remote. To the west are largely uninhabited mountains and the town of San Felipe. To the north is the expansive Colorado River Delta.
The nearest military base is more than 50 miles away at Puerto Peñasco — where the drones are based — on the opposite side of the gulf. The Ehécatls can reach the vaquitas, but the Gaviláns can’t. The T-20s can do so easily.
Without a doubt, the vaquitas need all the protection they can get. In March, at least three vaquitas died after being entangled in gillnets — despite the ban on the practice — and abandoned nets left behind after the early-summer fishing season pose a continuing threat, according to CIRVA.
There are immense economic forces threatening the vaquita.
Bizarrely, the totoaba swim bladders targeted by the illegal fishing have become a save haven for Chinese investors seeking places to store their money, Gwynn Guilford wrote in Quartz last year.
In a time of financial uncertainty in China, “households have been known to stockpile the more valuable bladders as speculative investments, on some occasions even trading them as currency,” Guilford wrote.
China pledged to crackdown on totoaba trafficking in a June 2015 agreement with the United States. But the vaquita population has continued to rapidly decline — and the demand for bladders is still high.
The drones might not be enough. And even if the population decline can be stopped, the porpoises will take decades to recover. “The species is racing toward extinction,” CIRVA warned.