Last hope for rare porpoise may lie in Newfoundland

The key to saving the world’s most endangered marine mammal may lie in Newfoundland.
WWF-Canada recently welcomed a delegation of fish harvesters, scientists, fishing gear experts and WWF-Mexico colleagues in St. John’s, Newfoundland. They brought a new type of fishing net to the Marine Institute, the best place in the world to test a design that just might save the vaquita.
There are thought to be only about 30 vaquitas left in the world, and they are found only in the Gulf of California off Mexico. There’s one reason they’re so critically endangered: they get caught in gillnets and drown.  

Vaquita caught in gillnet in the Gulf of California, Mexico © Flip Nicklin/WWF

Vaquitas are small porpoises with distinctive black rings around their eyes and mouth. They’re so shy and elusive that they were unknown to science until 1958. Because theyre so hard to study, little is known about their life cycle and behaviour. They were declared critically endangered in 1996, when there were still a few hundred of them left.
WWF-Mexico has been working on alternative fishing gear designs for years, but their work has taken on a new urgency as it’s thought vaquita could be extinct by the end of 2018. The Marine Institute’s flume tank – a massive testing tank for fishing gear, one that can simulate the conditions of a fishing trawl  is the world’s largest, and the best place to gather data on the nets’ performance. 
The world’s largest flume tank at the Marine Institute can simulate a fishing trawl © Catharine Tunnacliffe /WWF-Canada

Nets of various sizes were tested, and the results were filmed to show their effectiveness to fish harvesters in Mexico. Gillnets were made illegal in the Gulf of California in 2017, so there is a pressing need for an effective replacement that reduces bycatch. The new net design allows species such as vaquitas and sharks to escape, while still catching the shrimp and other fish the harvesters rely on for income. 
Tests simulated a net being pulled behind a fishing boat © Catharine Tunnacliffe /WWF-Canada

Without a replacement, harvesters may continue to use gillnets illegally. In 2017 alone, a WWF-Mexico program collected more than 500 “ghost” gillnets that were in the gulf, abandoned but floating in the ocean, still able to harm wildlife.  
Eliminating gillnets and finding a new design of vaquita-friendly gear can give the vaquita a slim chance at survival. Whether the population can rebound from such low numbers is uncertain. But WWF-Mexico is determined to give them that chance, and WWF-Canada was proud to support their endeavor.