Another species of marine mammal is on the verge of extinction. The Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico, is reportedly just 30 individuals away from being lost forever. The name vaquita is Spanish for “little cow,” and it looks somewhat like a panda mixed with a dolphin. Because individuals suffer high mortality when trapped in illegal gill nets used by fishermen, the vaquita populations have plummeted since 1997. Mexico has spent millions trying to stop the illegal practice of using gill nets, but to date has not been able to prevent it completely.
Faced with the imminent loss of the vaquita, the Mexican government approved a conservation plan in April, 2017. The plan, however, may not be implemented until October, 2017, as there are many logistical hurdles, including building enclosures to house the captive breeding program. There are also many unknowns, such as whether the vaquita will breed in captivity, how long they live, what age they mature sexually, and the minimum number of individuals necessary to keep the species from going extinct. It will be tricky to get all of the things needed to save the vaquita by October. Let’s hope the efforts that the Mexican government is taking, and the recent awareness brought to the issue by Leonardo De Caprio and several wildlife conservation organizations, will help turn things around. Otherwise, like the Chinese river dolphin, we will lose another unique aquatic species.
Are Green sea turtle populations increasing along the Texas gulf coast? Along the Texas Gulf Coast there appears to be an uptick in the number of sightings of Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Green Sea Turtle nests on North Padre Island. While reported sightings are not uncommon, experts do appear to agree that in 2012 and the beginning of 2013 there has been an increase in the number of sighting reports. Also increasing, is the number of turtles requiring rehabilitation due to injuries from boat encounters that too often result in the immediate death of turtles, or more frequently, leave deep disfiguring wounds that are prone to infection.
The increased sightings have some scratching their heads as to what might be occurring. A few people have suggested that there are more turtles due to the reopening of Packery Channel between Mustang Island and Padre Island. These islands form a barrier between the Texas coastline and the Gulf of Mexico, cutting off Corpus Christi Bay from the ocean and giving rise to a shallow water body known as the Laguna Madre that stretches the Texas coastline from Corpus Christi into northern Mexico. Padre Island is the longest barrier island in the world and because it separates the Laguna Madre from the ocean there is only limited mixing with ocean water, which also means limited ways for sea turtles to get in. Now that Packery Channel is open, perhaps Green Sea turtles, whose favored habitat is shallow coastal areas, are visiting more frequently than was possible before.
The turtles may also be attracted by the large gardens of sea grass that grow in the Laguna Madre. Sea grass populations have grown in the upper Laguna Madre and, because the Laguna Madre has an average depth of 3.6 feet (1.1 m), there is plenty of light from the sun and nutrients in the sandy bottoms to allow healthy growth of sea grass. In fact, 75% of all of the sea grass cover along the entire Texas coast is found in the Laguna Madre. Three species of grass dominate with shoal grass being the most abundant, followed by a moderate distribution of manatee grass and a small distribution of turtle grass. There is speculation that all of this grass is just too tempting for the vegetarian Green Sea turtle to pass up, especially in light of the fact that sea grass beds in and around other gulf coast areas have disappeared from both natural causes and human activities.
Whether the increased number of sightings is the result of an increase in the Green Sea Turtle population or more sea turtles getting in through Packery Channel may never be known. Measuring any sea turtle population is a challenge, not just because there are not enough resources to make accurate estimates, but because making the measurements often requires disturbing turtles that may lead them to abandon their nesting grounds never to return. A second difficulty is that Green Sea Turtles that do come to shore are primarily females looking for good places to build nests. Adult males and juvenile turtles tend to stay out in the open water making population estimates unreliable.