Navy-trained dolphins to help save endangered vaquita porpoise

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SAN DIEGO – U.S. Navy-trained dolphins are about to take on a new mission: save vaquita porpoises from extinction.

“We’ve seen them go from a rare species of about 600 down to well fewer than 60 individuals today,” said Barbara Taylor, a lead scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Experts say the endangered species is headed to extinction without some serious intervention.

The big problem is finding the shy marine mammal -- and that’s where the dolphins come into play.

“We could use the Navy dolphins that are right here in San Diego to be able to help us track vaquita,” Taylor said.

Because boats send the vaquita scattering for cover, the plan is to use the dolphin's echolocation to find the porpoises and eventually section off a large area of ocean, giving the species time to recover their numbers without the danger of getting tangled in fishnets.

“This has never happened before in this really experimental way, to try to have one marine mammal save another marine mammal,” Taylor said.

Most involved in the mission understand they are taking extreme steps to save the porpoises, but Taylor says desperate times call for desperate measures.

“It’s a Hail Mary plan…but if we don’t solve this one, we could lose one after another, maybe another dozen marine mammal species in as many years,” Taylor said.

Scientists say once the funding is in place, they should start the mission in May.