Shift in im­por­tant ar­eas for har­bour por­poises

Western Morning News (Saturday) - - Uk And World News -

UK har­bour por­poise pop­u­la­tions are shift­ing to new ar­eas, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port that calls for fur­ther mon­i­tor­ing to help pro­tect the species and en­sure that ma­rine con­ser­va­tion strate­gies are ef­fec­tive.

ORCA, one of the UK’s lead­ing ma­rine con­ser­va­tion char­i­ties, has launched its the State of Eu­ro­pean Ce­taceans 2018 re­port af­ter analysing data recorded by a net­work of hun­dreds of UK vol­un­teers.

This year’s edi­tion fo­cuses on har­bour por­poise pop­u­la­tions around the UK, and high­lights that the distri­bu­tion of this species in the English Chan­nel has shifted.

This could po­ten­tially have sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for ef­forts to pro­tect a species that is fac­ing an ar­ray of threats in Eu­rope, with har­bour por­poises one of the most threat­ened ma­rine mam­mals in Eu­rope due to their pref­er­ence for coastal wa­ters.

The re­port high­lights that pop­u­la­tions of these an­i­mals in both the North Sea and Celtic Sea have moved into the English Chan­nel.

The cause for this shift is un­con­firmed, but pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tions in­clude a shift in the har­bour por­poises pre­ferred prey or a change in sea con­di­tions as a re­sult of fac­tors such as cli­mate change.

ORCA direc­tor Sally Hamil­ton said: “These find­ings high­light both the im­por­tant role that ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists can play in pro­tect­ing whales and dol­phins, and how crit­i­cal it is to con­tinue to mon­i­tor these an­i­mals to bet­ter un­der­stand where they can be found and how their distri­bu­tion is chang­ing.

“Har­bour por­poises are one of the most elu­sive species of cetacean, so it is a tes­ta­ment to the hard work and skill of our vol­un­teers that we have been able to come to such pro­found con­clu­sions from their ef­forts.”

Har­bour por­poises are the small­est species of cetacean found around the UK, mea­sur­ing 1.5m-1.7m long. They feed on small fish such as sand eels, and are iden­ti­fi­able from their dis­tinc­tive tri­an­gu­lar dor­sal fin.

Har­bour por­poises, like all ce­taceans, are un­der threat from a broader ar­ray of threats than at any other point in his­tory, with ORCA’s re­port dis­cussing the im­pact of these on Eu­ro­pean ma­rine wildlife.

The species is par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing caught in fish­ing gear, oth­er­wise known as by­catch, with 1,500 por­poises killed by UK fish­eries in a year. Work to com­bat this and other threats is ham­pered by the lim­ited na­ture of Govern­ment-funded mon­i­tor­ing pro­grammes, which only take place once each decade.

Chris Pack­ham, wildlife pre­sen­ter, nat­u­ral­ist and ORCA pa­tron, said: “A whale and dol­phin cen­sus ev­ery ten years is not enough to keep tabs on an an­i­mal pop­u­la­tion that is, more than any­thing, a re­flec­tion of the ebb and flow of the oceans in which they live.

“ORCA’s real-time mon­i­tor­ing and re­port­ing com­pre­hen­sively fills in the other nine years and stops the Govern­ment from say­ing it can’t act in the in­ter­ests of whale and dol­phins when any sort of cri­sis af­fect­ing them oc­curs be­cause it doesn’t have the ev­i­dence. This re­port is that ev­i­dence.”

Other threats pro­filed in the re­port in­clude large whales be­ing killed in col­li­sions with ships, an is­sue that is widely un­der­re­ported de­spite be­ing one of the main threats fac­ing larger species. ORCA have been work­ing in part­ner­ship with Brit­tany Fer­ries to mon­i­tor fin whales in the Bay of Bis­cay and learn more about their in­ter­ac­tion with large ships in one of the busiest ship­ping ar­eas in the world.

Toxic chem­i­cals such as poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls, or PCBs, are also iden­ti­fied a key threat, with re­cent re­search suggest­ing that orca pop­u­la­tions in Eu­rope are at crit­i­cal risk of suf­fer­ing a cat­a­strophic pop­u­la­tion crash due to ex­po­sure to these pol­lu­tants.

“Threats to Eu­ro­pean ce­taceans have never been greater, and with­out swift and de­ci­sive ac­tion we run the risk of los­ing some of these iconic and in­spir­ing an­i­mals for­ever,” Ms Hamil­ton said. “The UK and other Eu­ro­pean govern­ments need to cre­ate more safe spaces for our whales and dol­phins in or­der to safe­guard them for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

ORCA’s ci­ti­zen sci­en­tists recorded data on over 13,500 ce­taceans in 2017 alone, with 25 species ob­served dur­ing 85 sur­veys con­ducted from fer­ries and cruise ships.

ORCA’s The State of Eu­ro­pean Ce­taceans 2018 re­port can be found in full at www.or­caweb.org.uk/soec

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