Seal Team 6, a squad of dolphins trained by the US Navy to locate undersea mines and other submerged objects, may be the last, best chance of survival for the world’s most endangered marine mammal. The team of superhero cetaceans will be recruited to help locate the sixty or so remaining vaquitas in the wild, so that a small group of the porpoises may be captured and relocated to establish a captive breeding population.

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Distinguished by their small size and dark rings around their eyes and mouths, vaquitas are endemic to a narrow stretch in the upper regions of the Gulf of California in Mexico. The vaquitas population has been in decline for decades due to the tiny porpoise’s habit of becoming trapped in fishing nets meant for other sea creatures. While ex situ conservation, the establishment of a protected captive breeding population, is not a new idea, it remains controversial. “I don’t like this idea at all,” said Omar Vidal, director general of the World Wildlife Fund Mexico in Mexico City.”The risk of killing a vaquita while catching them is very high. With only 50 or 60 animals left, we can’t play with that.”

Related: China’s ‘extinct’ dolphin may have been sighted again in the Yangtze River

Despite the risks, the Seal Team 6 project, currently in planning stages, will likely commence in spring. However, the Navy and its dolphins will not be alone. “An international group of experts, including Navy personnel, have been working on two primary goals: determining the feasibility of locating and catching vaquitas, as a phase One,” wrote Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chairman of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita. “As a second phase, to determine the feasibility of temporarily housing vaquitas in the Gulf of California.”

Vaquitas have never successfully been held and bred in captivity before, so the team will be paying particularly close attention to creating holding pens, likely located in a protected bay, that meet the specific needs of the animals. While creating a net-free, safe environment for wild vaquitas in their natural habitat remains the ultimate goal, the situation is now desperate enough to merit risk. “Given the crisis we’re in, we need to explore all of our options,” said NOAA biologist Barbara Taylor.

Via Science Magazine

Images via Marion Doss/Flickr and Paula Olson/Flickr