Solution to dying porpoises off Mexico could be found in St. John's flume tank

Researchers are have converged on St. John's to test new technologies in a flume tank at MUN's Marine Institute. The goal is to protect the porpoises and the livelihood of fish harvesters.

World's smallest porpoise get tangled in shrimp nets and only 30 remain, according to WWF

A new type of netting aims to prevent vaquita porpoises from becoming tangled in a fishing net in the Upper Gulf of California. (C.Faesi/Proyecto Vaquita)

There are only about 30 of the world's smallest porpoises left and groups and governments are hoping the remaining mammals will get a reprieve with a new type of net which is being tested in St. John's. 

"When you're dealing with a challenge in Mexico, even though Newfoundland seems a long way away, we're still the closest flume tank," says Dr. Paul Winger, director of the Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Resources.

Vaquitas are routinely caught up in gillnets used by shrimp harvesters in the upper Gulf of Califonia, and drown. The nets are largely invisible to the porpoises.

"We're looking for a porpoise-friendly fishing technology," said Winger. 

Dr. Paul Winger says the flume tank at the Marine Institute is the only one in the Western Hemisphere. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

He said some of those fishermen are in Newfoundland and Labrador to test a new design of net to see if it can be a viable solution to keeping the species alive.

"[The new netting] they can see it or hear it and then that way they avoid it ... it's more noticeable to porpoises so they simply stay away," said Winger.

Vaquitas are 'shy' and 'critically endangered'

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) describes the vaquita as the "the world's rarest marine mammal ... on the brink of extinction."

There are none known to be in captivity which is why, according to Winger, an "on-the-water solution" is needed. 

The World Wildlife Fund is testing new fishing gear at the Marine Institute in an attempt to save the vaquita, what the group says is the world's most endangered marine mammal. 3:09

The government of Mexico has banned gillnets, which has helped, according to Winger — but an expert committee of international gear technologists is tackling the issue.

"They have identified a number of possible solutions, some of which in order to perfect them they needed a flume tank," said Winger.

That's where the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University comes in.

While there are flume tanks in Denmark, Australia, Japan and a few other locations, Winger said the one in Newfoundland and Labrador has one major attractive feature.

"Turns out we have the only one in the Western Hemisphere," said Winger. 

With files from Carolyn Stokes