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Porpoise friendly

Marine Institute playing pivotal part in race against extinction of species


By Mandy Cook

In San Felipe in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, the vast majority of the residents of the coastal community fish for a living.

Trouble is, the gillnets they’ve used for generations to sustain themselves have largely contributed to the decimation of the highly endangered vaquita porpoise, which only lives in that particular area of the ocean. Only 30 individuals of the little marine mammal remain.

Extinct in 2018?

The vaquita’s perilous situation has been on the Marine Institute’s radar for some time.

Staff from the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources have been visiting the region since 2004; in 2015 the issue became so dire that an international group called the Expert Committee on Fishing Technologies was formed.

Dr. Paul Winger, director of the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources at MI, through his membership on the committee, helped spearhead a project to invite a delegation of experts from Mexico to visit St. John’s.

Their aim? To test and refine alternative fishing gear in MI’s flume tank in an attempt to develop new ways to catch shrimp in the Upper Gulf of California.

1/ Testing in the flume tank

An above water view of the Marine Institute flume tank. From left are Marine Institute staff Dr. Paul Winger, Harold DeLouche, Ryan Doody and Gebre Kebede.

Photo: Submitted

2/ How to catch a shrimp

Side view of a suripera net deployed in the Marine Institute flume tank. The vessel slowly tows the net (leftward) at speeds of approximately 0.2 knots. Shrimp crawl up the underside of the net and are captured in bags.

Photo: Submitted

3/ At the controls

Ryan Doody, electronics technologist and Marine Institute alumnus, operates the flume tank.

Photo: Submitted

4/ Underwater view

The scene from the flume tank viewing station. Water moves from left to right, like a wind tunnel filled with water. Shown in the tank is a novel fishing technology (suripera net) for catching shrimp from small open vessels. Pictured is Paúl Padilla Galindo, a gear technologist with INAPESCA (Mexican Institute of Fisheries).

Photo: Submitted

5/ Casting a net

Deploying the suripera net. From left are Paúl Padilla Galindo, Ryan Doody and Tomas Araya, doctoral student.

Photo: Submitted

6/ Modelling the real thing

From left, Marine Institute staff Harold DeLouche and Tara Perry build models of experimental trawls for use in the Upper Gulf of California to catch shrimp.

Photo: Submitted

Funded by WWF-Mexico, the delegation included a fisherman/netmaker, government gear technologist, research scientist and co-ordinator. They spent three days evaluating novel fishing gears designed to replace gillnets. These included small trawls and suripera nets.

The “porpoise friendly” fishing gear reduces bycatch – vaquita porpoises, as well as a number of other species under pressure — because the more visible nets and the accompanying noise from the boats wards off the shy and skittish porpoises.

‘Meaningful alternatives’

The delegation was pleased with the test results, Dr. Winger says.

The controlled environment of MI’s flume tank — no wind, no waves — allowed for the development of more efficient versions of the small trawl nets, which means less drag and better fuel efficiency for the small boats that pull them. The group also developed training materials for the suripera net, which has been less readily adopted by the San Felipe fishermen.

“Now that gillnets have been banned in the region, our goal is to develop meaningful alternatives for fishermen,” said Dr. Winger.

“More than 600 small-boat fishermen have been told to stay ashore. This creates economic hardship and food insecurity, threatening community sustainability. The testing this week was fruitful and hopefully a step in the right direction to getting fishermen back on the water.”

Find out more about the international committee working to create vaquita-safe fisheries here.

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