Endangered Baltic Proper harbour porpoise granted highest protection status following concerted action from ORCA and allies


The common harbour porpoise is critically endangered in the central Baltic Sea and off the Iberian Peninsula, with only a few hundred individuals left. However, effective measures to enable the recovery of these special populations have so far been lacking. At the meeting of the UN Convention of Migratory Species (CMS COP14, 12-17 Feb 2024), the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise has now been given Appendix I protection, in recognition of its critically endangered status.

ORCA, along with WDC, HSI and Coalition Clean Baltic worked on a submission to ASCOBANS and then CMS for better protection of the Baltic and Iberian harbour porpoise populations back in 2022-2023.

Last year, they submitted a joint report to CMS on the Concerted Action to call for stronger protections for the harbour porpoise population in the Baltic Proper and to restore its habitat. As a result, the CMS member states of the EU submitted a proposal for the harbour porpoise to be included in Appendix I of the Convention, thereby granting it the highest protection status and enabling priority conservation measures to be taken.

The aim is to prevent, remove or mitigate obstacles to their seasonal migration and to control other factors that might endanger their survival. The main threats to the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise include bycatch, underwater noise and pollution.

The harbour porpoise is one of the smallest species within the larger family of whales, dolphins and porpoises. The genetically distinct Baltic Proper harbour porpoise sub-population is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN as well as HELCOM, the regional seas convention in the Baltic Sea. There are only a few hundred individuals left in this population, which declined severely in the 1960-1970s due to being caught in fishing nets, particularly the highly deadly gillnet fisheries. They also suffer from high levels of toxic pollutants such as PCBs and dioxins. Due to ongoing pressure, the population has not recovered since.

Bycatch is the main threat to the only resident cetacean native to the Baltic Sea. However, environmental contaminants, underwater noise and the effects of climate change on the marine ecosystem, food availability and natural habitats also pose a threat to the harbour porpoise.

Photo credit: Elfyn Pugh