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Harbour porpoise protection in Europe

All EU Member States are legally required to protect harbour porpoises in their waters from all threats, great and small. Are we doing enough to protect our smallest, most wide spread and arguably most vulnerable, harbour porpoise? We don't think so.
Harbour porpoise group
Harbour porpoise group

The harbour porpoise is the most commonly sighted and stranded cetacean in European waters throughout the year and is found widely distributed over the continental shelf of the eastern North Atlantic. Although considered abundant at this large scale, there has been considerable concern for its status in some regions due to apparent declines in numbers of sightings and strandings and impacts which include high levels of incidental catches in fisheries. Although they can be seen in deeper waters off the continental shelf, sightings are much less common in waters over 200 metres deep.

In many areas harbour porpoises are present throughout the year but there also seem to be seasonal changes in distribution and sightings rates, most likely linked to prey availability and the location of suitable breeding and calving habitat. Female harbour porpoises disperse less than male harbour porpoises and this may indicate that female harbour porpoises show site fidelity for the places they calve and nurse their young, returning to preferred areas for these activities. 

Harbour porpoise require 'strict protection' under EU law and WDC is committed to ensuring our politicians live up to the requirements of the law.

Harbour Porpoise


In the North Sea, the harbour porpoise is considered under threat because of high bycatch levels. Understanding the extent of fisheries impacts is challenging because often strandings data are the only evidence that exists to demonstrate impacts, and this can be just the tip of the iceberg – an indication of a much larger level of impact occurring at sea.

Prey depletion leads to changes in composition of marine prey species and widespread overfishing may result in shifts in distributions of cetaceans or changes to alternative prey sources.

Disturbance is generally considered a significant change in pattern of normal behaviour as a result of human activity. Behavioural change can occur as a result of disturbance, either by noise pollution or the physical presence of an activity, such as pile-driving (for coastal development, including marine renewable energy) or vessels, ranging from shipping traffic and recreational jet skis, but also including commercial boat-based cetacean watching activities. Anthropogenic marine noise pollution comes from vessels, military activities, industrial developments (including oil and gas; marine renewable energy; ports and harbours), dredging and fisheries anti-predation devices. All of which occur in porpoises habitats.

An estimated 90% of the European population of harbour porpoises is found in UK waters according to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The European Environment Agency assigned a status of 'unfavourable - inadequate' for harbour porpoises in the marine Atlantic region for the reporting period 2009, and the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise sub-population is considered 'vulnerable' on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

EU Habitats Directive

The European Union (EU) Habitats and Species Directive (also known for short as the Habitats Directive) recognises harbour porpoises as both a ‘species of community interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas of conservation’ (SACs), and as a ‘species of community interest in need of strict protection’.

Because of the EU Directive, all Member States had a duty to designate SACs for harbour porpoises (to help ensure that they survive and thrive in the future) by 2008. SACs of each country were then expected to form part of a coherent network of SACs found throughout the territories and waters of EU Member States, to be put in place by 2012. This project to create a network of SACs spanning the EU is called Natura 2000. Yet the development of the Natura 2000 network within the marine environment has lagged significantly in comparison to terrestrial coverage.

ALL EU countries have a duty to designate protected areas for harbour porpoises. A coherent network of marine protected areas should have been in place by the end of 2012.

How are those with responsibility for implementing the Habitats Directive doing?