Have you ever seen a Baltic harbour porpoise?
If the answer is “no”, unfortunately we can understand why. Starting with the fact that they are especially difficult to observe at sea, this is exacerbated by the critical state of their population.
Porpoises are toothed whales in the family Phocoenidae. Globally, seven species of porpoises are recognized by the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s (SMM) Committee on Taxonomy. Their closest relatives are belugas and narwhals (also known as sea-unicorns).
They are quite small and are generally found alone or with few individuals. They are less active than dolphins, which congregate in large groups and display aerial behaviors, making them easier to spot. Porpoises appear to be less active on the surface, tending to be more reserved and to wander away from humans.
Current status of Europe’s porpoises
Harbour porpoises are found exclusively in the northern hemisphere. The largest known population is in the North Sea and surrounding waters, with an estimated size of nearly 500,000 animals, but they are also present in smaller numbers in other areas.
The harbour porpoise is covered by the terms of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS, a regional agreement under the Bonn Convention) and by HELCOM (The Helsinki Commission; protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution).
The most at-risk population is the Baltic Proper population, listed by the IUCN as critically endangered. Today There are less than 500 harbour porpoises left in the Baltic Sea and the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission has repeatedly called for action to ensure its survival.
The main threats to the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise today are bycatch in fishing gear, environmental contaminants and underwater noise. Contaminants such as PCB has also proven to cause reproductive failure in North Sea harbour porpoises, and PCB levels in the Baltic Sea are many times higher than in the North Sea. That means a smaller proportion of females are able to reproduce. If a fertile female dies in a fishing net, that is a serious loss for the population, and a threat to its survival. In addition, disturbance from underwater noise can further decrease the number of successful matings and the calf survival rate.
Touring to save the Baltic harbour porpoise
Given that the conservation of the harbour porpoise seems to be failing in Europe, DAN Europe wanted to take the opportunity that its ambassadors Manu Bustelo and Alana Alvarez are visiting more than 15 European countries with the Sustainable Tour, to raise awareness about the critical situation of this beautiful cetacean populations.
The agenda includes a visit to the Marine Biological Research Center (Kerteminde, University of Southern Denmark) and Fjord&Bælt, where, if COVID regulations allow it, they’ll be able to spend some time with porpoises and the scientific team that studies their behaviour, to advocate for their protection.
“From DAN Europe, we want to encourage people to get more involved with the conservation of endangered marine species, specially in the Baltic Sea area. For this reason, we have selected the Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise as the ‘mascot’ of our tour – knowing how critically endangered it is – to represent the rest of the marine species and ecosystems that are in danger of extinction.”
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