Studying Canada’s smallest whales
Harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) are among the smallest of the toothed whales, weighing 50-70 kg as adults. This species is distributed in the temperate waters of the northern hemisphere, and can be found off of Japan, Alaska, British Columbia, and Europe in addition to the Canadian Maritimes and New England waters. Harbour porpoises are able to stay warm in the Bay of Fundy because of their thick blubber layers, which are maintained by feeding on energy-dense prey such as herring and mackerel. Porpoises are common members of the Fundy community, particularly in the summer months into the early fall.
The GMWSRS has been studying porpoises since the station has been in existence. We have investigated what they eat, their reproductive strategies, health, blubber characteristics, contaminant burdens, echolocation, and movement patterns using a variety of tracking technologies. Because porpoises follow schools of herring along the shore at night, they often become trapped in herring weirs. The Harbour Porpoise Release Program was developed as a means to work with the local fishing community to release these animals unharmed. However in the course of the release process we have a unique opportunity to handle these elusive animals – we can take blood samples, weigh and measure them, and attach tracking tags to them. Thus not only conservation, but also porpoise biology, is advanced by the HPRP.