WANTED: A Safe Haven For The Harbour Porpoise

Framed by a picturesque British landscape, fins slice through the icy cold water and gentle “puff” sounds cut through the crisp air. The shadows of gannets gliding through the air fall ominously onto the ocean’s surface sending shoals of silvery fish darting under the waves. As the sun sets on another day sending out streaks of golden yellows, deep reds, oranges and pinks across the sky, a colossal fluke is raised out of the water before slowly disappearing out of view into the deep blue depths of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Our coastlines are teeming with a rich array of marine life. From bottlenose dolphins and basking sharks to grey seals, minke whales and harbour porpoise. The chance of seeing them in the wild attracts huge numbers of visitors to British coastlines every year. Whether it’s taking a trip to the beach to scan rock pools for tiny creatures, to skimming the waves in a RIB searching for seals and cetaceans, the hope of catching a glimpse of marine life is an exciting prospect and so it seems pretty obvious that we need to do all we can to conserve our marine biodiversity.

So what exactly is being done?

The UK has an increasing number of Marine Conservation Zones established to protect its wildlife, geomorphology, habitats and geology. With 50 designated areas in England alone, these zones place limitations on human activity, such as fishing, in order to safeguard a wide-range of marine life. Rather than focusing upon individual species, MCZs are chosen for their biodiversity in the hope that they will help a range of nationally important species in multiple populations both recover and thrive. Special Areas of Conservation, on the other hand, do focus upon certain rare and threatened species and habitats, and are selected by the European Union Habitats Directive as part of an initiative to create a network of conservation sites across Europe. They are chosen based on how influential and significant a role they play in the protection of listed habitats and species considered to be in the greatest need of extra conservation measures. With 108 SACs across the UK, it’s fair to say that some of our most cherished wildlife, including the bottlenose dolphin, are receiving good attention. That is except for the harbour porpoise.

The harbour porpoise is a wide ranging little cetacean with populations distributed across Europe, but sadly it has no dedicated SACs in the UK. Despite being the most common cetacean in these waters, the species faces a number of significant threats including entanglement in fishing gear, underwater noise disturbance, pollution and lack of food. Half a century ago, reported widespread declines in the species directly resulted in the establishment of an international agreement within the United Nations Environmental Programme, called ASCOBANS, as well as the formation of the European Cetacean Society. In an increasingly noisy watery world, it is vital that this species receives some level of protection. So what has been done, and what will be done in the future?

Last month, a public consultation was launched by the statutory conservation agencies in the UK to obtain feedback with respect to five possible SACs specifically for the harbour porpoise in England and Wales. Whilst in the past there has been some dispute regarding the placement of suitable sites due to the species’ widespread distribution and mobility, a compilation of survey results and analysis by the Sea Watch Foundation and the international marine and freshwater environment consultancy DHI has led to the selection of five areas exhibiting a persistent high of abundance of porpoises: the Irish Sea’s North Channel, Bristol Channel Approaches, southern North Sea, West Wales and North Anglesey. The consultation split between Natural Resources Wales and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, will assess the socio economic impact each site will have upon human activity, as well as the scientific basis on which each site has been selected in order to determine the success of each one.

Sea Watch has played an integral role throughout the process of considering protected areas for the harbour porpoise. In 2000, they responded to a conservation strategy from DETR who claimed that the harbour porpoise was simply too mobile for the designation of special areas, arguing that there are indeed identifiable hotspots around the UK, and in the same year, director Dr Peter Evans was invited by the European Commission to participate in a small meeting of experts to consider potential criteria for the establishment harbour porpoise SACs. Two years later Sea Watch was contracted by the Countryside Council for Wales to analyse the three major data sets gathered for the NW European Cetacean Research Atlas, and four key areas of persistently high porpoise activity were identified, highlighting a further ten sites with concentrations but where evidence was weaker. In 2009, Dr Evans served as the marine mammal assessor as part of the European Commission’s biogeographic seminar held in Ireland, to assess progress with SAC designation for states bordering the Atlantic. A few years later in 2011, Sea Watch was asked to make a case for the harbour porpoise to the UK government by WWF, which resulted in the identification of six areas for possible SAC designation, and five others recommended for further search efforts.

Most recently, at the latter end of 2013, Sea Watch was approached by JNCC to analyse data alongside DHI, the result of which was the recognition of the five areas proposed for the conservation of the harbour porpoise currently in consultation.

Locating and securing appropriate SAC sites for the harbour porpoises is a challenging concept. Their widespread distribution and high level of mobility can pose problems in terms of identifying appropriate areas of significant size and importance to the species. However, the recent steps taken in appointing such locations is huge in the world of conservation. They may already be a European protected species requiring strict protection but having purposeful SACs created solely to help conserve the harbour porpoise means that their most critical habitats are also protected, an incredibly important aspect in their long-term survival. The public consultation ends on the 19th April 2016, and once all scientific evidence and responses have been submitted for each site, the decision will be made whether or not the candidacies are put to the European Commission. Let’s hope that it’s a success. The UK is lagging behind our European maritime counterparts, and it’s time we caught up!

Spotting harbour porpoises in the wild can be challenging but worth it. Allocating SACs for the harbour porpoise can be challenging but worth it. Many things worth doing can be challenging but worth it, and stepping forward in the conservation of such an intriguing species certainly is.


Image: Erik Christensen (2009)


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