EH9B3J Harbour porpoise (Phocoena Phocoena) Schweinswal Fjord & Baelt

Save the harbour porpoise – the only whale in the Baltic Sea

The harbour porpoise is a small whale which actually lives in the Baltic Sea, but it is critically endangered. There are only approximately 500 animals left today, and now management measures are needed to save them.

Harbour porpoises are threatened by fisheries, since they can get caught and drown in fishing nets. This is one of the primary reasons there are so few porpoises left in the Baltic Sea today. Harbour porpoises are also exposed to underwater noise from heavy shipping traffic and fast leisure boats. For the Baltic Sea harbour porpoises to recover, we need more areas were these activities are restricted.

For many years, protected areas for harbour porpoises have been discussed, and in December 2016 a large protected area for porpoises was designated in Swedish waters south of Gotland. With an effective management this area could be instrumental for the recovery of the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise. Sweden now has a unique chance to contribute to the conservation of harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea and to be the first nation with a protected area this big and with relevant management measures.

We hope that all Swedish parties, authorities and other stakeholders can agree to build on this new protected area and cooperate to take effective management measures to save the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise.

The harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is a small toothed whale which lives in the Baltic Sea. It is not as large as its dolphin relatives, and rarely jumps over the surface like dolphins, so it is rather difficult to spot at sea. While dolphins live in larger social groups, porpoises often live alone or in pairs, and they do not use whistles like dolphins do. Instead, porpoises use echolocation clicks to “see” under water and to communicate with eachother.

Harbour porpoises live in coastal waters around the whole northern hemisphere. There are three sub-species: one in he Pacific, one in the Atlantic and one in the Black Sea. In the Baltic region there are three separate populations: one in the North Sea, Skagerrak and northern Kattegat, one in southern Kattegat, the Belt Sea and southwestern Baltic Sea, and one in the Baltic Proper.

The Baltic Sea harbour porpoise population is classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN. After a significant decrease in numbers from the 1960’s and forward, in the beginning of the 21st century no one knew how many animals were left in the Baltic, despite surveys using different methods. Also, there was no knowledge on the distribution of animals in the Baltic. The only information came from reported observations collected by different national bodies and collected at the HELCOM harbour porpoise database.

Reported observations occur along the coasts, since this is where most people spend their time. Without information on where the largest part of the population is, it is very difficult to take effective conservation measures. To gain more information, authorities and scientists from all EU countries around the Baltic Sea decided to start a common project using new acoustic methods to survey the distribution and abundance of harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea. The project, which started in 2010, was named SAMBAH, Static Acoustic Monitoring for the Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise.

SAMBAH estimated the number of harbour porpoises left in the Baltic Proper population to approximately 500 animals. The project could also show what areas are most important to porpoises during different seasons, and could thereby also show where the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise reproduce. This was previously completely unknown, and this new knowledge was instrumental in designating relevant areas for protection of porpoises. Based on the results from SAMBAH, in December 2016 the Swedish government designated a large Natura 2000 area south of Gotland

The area is more than 1 million hectares, and includes most of the area where the Baltic Proper harbour porpoises are thought to give birth to their calves and mate in the summer. To protect the porpoises here is very important to give the population a chance to recover. At CCB, we are now working together with authorities and stakeholders to look at suitable conservation measures for this area. In this work, we need your help to convince the politicians that protecting the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise is important, so that they make the right decision about the management of this new Natura 2000 area.

The most severe threat to harbour porpoises is bycatch in fisheries. Because porpoises need to get to the surface to breathe, they drown if they get caught in a fishing net. The nets with the highest risk if bycatch are large mesh nets used to catch for example cod and flatfish, as well as salmon nets. Porpoises rarely get caught in trawls or other active gear, so set nets are the primary threat. To avoid bycatch some measures could be

  • Decrease fishing effort with set nets in important areas
  • Switch set nets for alternative gear such as pots or traps
  • Use pingers on any set nets used. Pingers emit sound signals scaring the porpoises or warning them of the presence of nets

There are problems with all of these methods and different methods may be suitable in different areas, so it is important to have a good dialogue with stakeholders to adapt measures.

Because harbour porpoises use echolocation to orientate themselves, find prey and communicate, they are sensitive to underwater noise. The level of noise in the oceans has increased significantly during the last decades, with noise from shipping, dredging, construction, leisure boats and jet skis. With increased noise, porpoises have problems hearing the echoes from their own echolocation clicks, which makes it harder for them to find prey. It also becomes more difficult for porpoises to hear eachother. Their high frequency sounds travel only short distances under water, and with increased noise levels it becomes even shorter. This can cause calves to loose their mothers, or females and males not finding eachother when it is time to mate. To decrease the impact of underwater noise in especially sensitive areas we can

  • Restrict shipping traffic
  • Move shipping routes
  • Introduce speed limits for, or completely ban leisure boats
  • Prohibit construction of for example wind farms, or enforce strict rules on how construction must be carried out
This photo shows a young harbour porpoise male found on a beach in Poland in October 2016. He has clear marks of nets around his mouth, showing that he was caught and drowned in a fishing net before drifting ashore on one of the long sandy beaches on the Polish coast.

What can you do?

With funding from the EU Life programme and the Baltic Sea Conservation foundation, CCB is now working with authorities and stakeholders to agree on suitable conservation measures for the harbour porpoises in the new Natura 2000 area south of Gotland. The aim is to celebrate the International Day of the Baltic Porpoise in May 2019 with a protected area, complete with effective management measures, where harbour porpoises can raise their young in peace. We hope that all Swedish parties, authorities, stakeholders and the public will join us in this effort to save the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise.

Your voice is important in this work. We need your help to convince the politicians that protecting the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise is important, so that they make the right decision about the management of this new Natura 2000 area. Please show your support through our dedicated Facebook page and tag your photo of the sea with #SaveTheBalticPorpoise or #RäddaTumlaren.

Also, if you spot a harbour porpoise at sea, please report it to your national reporting hub.

Do you want to know more?

Read our publications:

  • Brochure: “The Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise needs protection” (EN, SE, DK, EEPL, RU)
  • Briefing: “The Harbour Porpoise – Our Baltic Whale” (EN, SE)

Our Harbour Porpoise´s page in Swedish is available here.