Harbour Porpoises in the Baltic Sea – critically endangered

On Sunday, May 15th, 2011, the annual „International Day of the Baltic Harbour Porpoise” is being celebrated in honour of the only whale species living in the Baltic Sea, but this year it is not a day for celebration. Although a conservation plan (aka the Jastarnia Plan) exists already for more than 10 years created by the “Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans” (ASCOBANS), the population is declining rapidly. This negative development is particularly dramatic in the Baltic Proper (east of the island of Ruegen) where total numbers have diminished to approx 100-400 individuals. Therefore, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) had to classify the population as „critically endangered“ in 2008.

Presently, however, alarm bells are also ringing from the „Belt Sea“ (Kattegat, Belt, Sund und Western Baltic), where another distinct population of the small whale with its rounded snout, still occurs fairly frequently. Appearances can be deceiving, and recent Danish scientific publications show a dramatic collapse of the population from 27.800 to 10.900 animals during the period 1994-2005. This corresponds to more than 60% decrease in population in merely 11 years based on results of the „SCANS I“ and „SCANS II“surveys (Small Cetaceans in the European Atlantic and North Sea) as re-assessed recently by the Danish scientist Signe Sveegaard.

Therefore, the harbour porpoise in the Belt Sea has to be considered to be seriously endangered between Ruegen und Flensburg as well. It could become extinct soon, if member states do not finally implement the protection provisions of ASCOBANS. As the main threat and presumably main cause of the high mortality rate, the Jastarnia Working Group of ASCOBANS identified bycatch in fishing gear. Although no fisherman intends to catch harbour porpoises nowadays, more animals thus die (accidentally) in fishing nets than are born.

Already two years ago, the federal government of Germany presented research results in three documents submitted to ASCOBANS, which substantiated a bycatch quota of at least 47% of all dead Harbour Porpoises found along the German Baltic coast. This means, that 2-8% of the domestic Harbour Porpoise population perish in fishing nets every year. In its project ‘Sailors on the Lookout for Harbour Porpoises’ the Society for the Conservation of Marine Mammals (GMS e.V.) registers not only sightings of healthy animals but also dead Harbour Porpoises found. The alarming results: Every year up to 170 Harbour Porpoise carcasses are found on German Baltic Sea beaches – 138 were found 2010. No population can cope with such a drain.

Like ASCOBANS member states, the Federal Republic of Germany has committed itself to take counteractive measures to prevent the extinction of the Harbour Porpoise in the Baltic Sea should the annual bycatch quota reach 1,7% of the national population. Nonetheless, until now, nothing has happened. According to the EU Habitats Directive of 1992, the Harbour Porpoise is listed as a species in need of strict protection (Annex II and IV).  Yet, the conservation areas to be determined only exist on paper – without any benefit for the conservation of endangered marine mammals.

The question remains: How long do the German federal government and the federal state governments of Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania want to continue their irresponsibly passive attitude?

Contact persons:

Dr. Stefan Bräger 03831 2650 303

Petra Deimer-Schütte 04106 4712