Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (2006)


The incidental catch of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in the gillnet fishery of the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, was examined using: (1) questionnaires mailed to fishermen inquiring about bycatches in 2000 and 2001 (n=2,277 or 44% of the fishermen with valid licenses); and (2) using data from an at-sea observer programme and sentinel fishery programme in 2001 and 2002. The questionnaire survey had a low response rate (22%) and provided bycatch estimates of 2,215 (95% CI 1,151-3,662) and 2,394 (95% CI 1,440-3,348) porpoises in 2000 and 2001, respectively. The low number of hauls monitored by at-sea observers prevented the estimation of bycatch levels for several zones and the study area as a whole, and provided only imprecise estimates for all other zones. The results from questionnaires indicated a 24-63% reduction in harbour porpoise bycatches since the late 1980s, whereas the at-sea observer programme provided bycatch levels for 2001 and 2002 that were unreliable and underestimated, approaching one quarter of those documented in the late 1980s. Although both indices indicated a decrease in bycatches since the late 1980s, the magnitude of this change remains uncertain given the weaknesses associated with the two approaches. Considering the maximum population rate of increase (Rmax) for harbour porpoises as 4% and the lower and upper 95% confidence limits (1,440-3,348) of our most reliable estimate of bycatches (i.e. the 2001 questionnaire survey results), the harbour porpoise population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence would need to be at least 36,000-83,700 individuals for current incidental catches to be sustainable. If the rate of increase is less than maximal, e.g. 0.5Rmax or 2%, then 72,000-167,400 harbour porpoises would be needed to attain sustainability. Kingsley and Reeves (1998) estimated that an average 36,000 to 125,000 porpoises occupied the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the summers of 1995 and 1996. Although the trajectory of the population since it was last surveyed in 1996 is uncertain, these findings suggest that bycatch levels might remain a cause for concern for the harbour porpoise population in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The results from the comparison between the sentinel fishery and the commercial fishery subjected and not subjected to at-sea observations suggest that fine-scale temporal and spatial changes in fishing activities may greatly affect harbour porpoise bycatch levels.