Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (2008)


Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) bycatch in the US Northeast gillnet fishery is managed under the Harbour Porpoise Take Reduction Plan (HPTRP), which was implemented on 1 January 1999. The HPTRP divides this fishery into management areas that are either completely closed to all gillnets or closed only to gillnets that do not use pingers. Questions about pingers that have arisen include: (1) would pingers be as effective in an operational fishery as in controlled scientific experiments; (2) would the fishery comply with these regulations; and (3) would harbour porpoises habituate to pingers? To investigate these questions, data from over 25,000 gillnet hauls observed by the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program after the implementation of the HPTRP, 1999-2007, were examined. In a 1994 controlled scientific experiment conducted in part of this fishery that used 15cm mesh gillnets, the bycatch rate in pingered nets was 92% less than that in nets without pingers. In contrast, in the operational fishery, the bycatch reduction in pingered nets was 50-70%, depending on the time, area and mesh size. In particular, there was no observed bycatch in pingered nets that used the same mesh size as used in the experiment. Thus, it seem that the apparent decrease in pinger effectiveness in the operational fishery was partially due to the type of gillnet used and lack of compliance. Pinger usage started out high in 1999 (the first year required), dropped substantially during 2003-05 and perhaps due to outreach activities increased beginning in 2006. During years of high pinger usage, 87% of the tested pingers were functional, while only 36% of the tested pingers were functional during years of low pinger usage. In general, as expected, observed bycatch rates in hauls without pingers were greater than bycatch rates in hauls with the required number of pingers. Unexpectedly, bycatch rates of observed hauls with an incomplete set of pingers were higher that in observed hauls without pingers. Confounding factors that could partially explain this apparently contrary result are discussed. There was no evidence for temporal trends in the bycatch rates, suggesting that harbour porpoises had not habituated to the pingers. In conclusion, in the US Northeast gillnet fishery, harbour porpoises do not appear to have habituated to pingers, and pingers appear to have reduced the bycatch rate, particularly when the required number of pingers were used and in nets using mesh sizes of 15cm or less.