Harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) are small coastal cetaceans vulnerable to mortality in fishing operations. Not all interactions are fatal, however, and each year many porpoises swim into and are subsequently released from herring weirs in the Bay of Fundy, Canada through a targeted release programme. This study examines catch composition, body condition, characteristics associated with mortality and factors affecting entrapment of porpoises in weirs between 1992-2001. A total of 886 porpoises were recorded in weirs during this period. A total of 657 animals were involved in attempted releases: 588 were released alive and 69 were incidentally killed during release. The remainder of the animals swam out on their own or their fates were unknown. Estimated annual mortality represents less than 0.01% of the Bay of Fundy/Gulf of Maine population and only 1.03% of its annual potential biological removal level.
The number of porpoises caught in weirs varied from eight in 1996 to 312 in 2001. Of the 390 animals released with a numbered identification tag, 25 were recaptured in weirs and 4 of those porpoises entered a weir a third time. Males comprised 63.5% of entrapments. Weirs and demersal gillnets captured animals from the same population, but the weir bycatch was biased towards younger, smaller animals. Porpoises that became trapped in weirs exhibited measures of body condition similar to those killed in gillnets and by gunshot wounds in the same waters. None were considered emaciated. Mortality in weirs appeared to be random; porpoises that died during release attempts were of the same age and sex composition and body condition as the individuals that survived. The use of a specialised large-mesh seine significantly increased the probability of successful release. Observations of the stomach contents data of porpoises killed in weirs indicate that porpoises feed while trapped in weirs, but perhaps not at the same rate as animals killed in gillnets. Entrapments peaked in August, concurrent with the highest landings of Atlantic herring, the target species of the weir fishery. Based on a logistical regression model, porpoises are 3.3 times more likely to swim into a weir on a night in which high tide falls during darkness. Weir entrapments do not have a significant effect on this population, largely because of on-going efforts to release porpoises from weirs.