Harbor Porpoise Project History

three harbor porpoises in Burrows Pass

You can now view some videos of porpoises swimming through Burrows Pass near Anacortes, WA. Watch videos of harbor porpoises

Many marine mammals have experienced substantial population declines and are now considered endangered, threatened, or species of concern. Eight of the whale species found in Washington coastal waters, as well as the sea otter and Stellar sea lion are now federally listed as threatened or endangered. These species are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and are the subject of significant conservation efforts and scientific studies.

The harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is a small, shy cetacean that was once abundant in the Puget Sound. While the harbor porpoise is not yet federally listed as threatened or endangered, it has suffered a significant population and range decline. It has not received the same level of conservation attention as the other marine mammals because it was so difficult to monitor. Recently, new acoustic instruments have become available that will allow PBI to determine population trends and other factors important to its long-term survival.

One of PBI’s missions is to identify scientific tools and to develop information to aid in the protection of rare and imperiled species. A key to recovery of these species is the understanding of threats and limiting factors while these factors still can be overcome. Since the harbor porpoise population has not declined to the point that it is federally listed, we have an excellent opportunity to recover the population. To do this, we have been learning more about its habitat needs and other factors that limit the current population. As a result of our studies, we think the harbor porpoise may actually fill the role of a Sentinel Species for the Puget Sound.

Read PBI's publications related to the Harbor Porpoise Project.

The reduction in range and population of the harbor porpoise is thought to be due to pollution, gill netting, by-catch, noise, increased human presence and other factors (CMS 2009). Stock assessments, determination of the population size, are the responsibility of NOAA under mandate of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (NOAA 2003). These assessments have not been updated since 2003. At present, while there is no federal listing for the harbor porpoise, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has designated the harbor porpoise as a Candidate species of concern in Washington (WDFW 2009). Canada has a population of harbor porpoises in the British Columbia inland waters and has designated harbor porpoise a species of special concern, because it is particularly vulnerable to human activities. (Baird 2003).

Latin American Conservation Learn more about citizen science volunteer work on this project.

Marine Mammal Project Visit the volunteer resource page for the marine mammal project.

The long term research needs for harbor porpoise conservation were documented during the Salish Sea Harbor Porpoise Workshop held on February 7, 2013, in Anacortes, Washington. This workshop created a Statement on Salish Sea Harbor Porpoise Research and Management Needs.

In 2009, Aileen Jeffries, a Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI) board member, initiated a project to monitor harbor porpoise population and trends in the Puget Sound. The long-term goal of this project is to set a baseline for the population that can be used to realistically assess the stability of the species in the Puget Sound and to consider the need for marine reserves. Another goal of the project is to determine if the harbor porpoise is, in fact, an appropriate Sentinel Species for the Puget Sound. Aileen's research results through December 2010 are summarized in the document (5 MB): Harbor Porpoise Observations in Burrows Pass - December 2009 through December 2010.

Historically, the population has been assessed through aerial surveys conducted every six years. This provides a snapshot of what is visible from the air at infrequent intervals. In order to collect more detailed information, PBI’s project is designed to collect porpoise occurrence and distribution data with use of arrays of passive acoustic monitors (PAMs). The current PAM being tested is the C-POD, which is deployed in several places in Western Europe and North America to monitor cetaceans. Our goal is to deploy arrays of C-PODs at selected locations to measure harbor porpoise presence/absence continuously. In addition, data over successive years from the C-PODs may be used to determine the extent to which the harbor porpoise has been extirpated from the southern Puget Sound and to determine their current distribution in the northern Puget Sound. This will add to the scant body of knowledge of the harbor porpoise’s habitat use, its current range and how much historic habitat has been lost over the last century.

The presence of two porpoise species in the Puget Sound, harbor and Dall's porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli), is a complicating factor with acoustic monitoring of the harbor porpoise. Since, we have visual observers and know that Dall's porpoise do not use the areas where our C-PODs are deployed we have been able to defer this question.

In 2009, we were granted access to acoustically record an orphan harbor porpoise which was being cared for by the Marine Mammal Rescue Center, Vancouver, British Columbia. Aileen Jeffries recorded high-frequency acoustic signals (clicks) from the porpoise to test the use of passive acoustic monitors. Read about Aileen’s work with Daisy, the rescued harbor porpoise.

At present we have two C-PODs that are being deployed and tested. We are seeking funding for additional C-PODs in order to expand the area monitored. Our long-term goal for this initiative is to develop a geo-spatial model that can help predict the optimal habitat for the harbor porpoise based on biophysical data and knowledge of the behavioral ecology of the animal.

Baird, Robin. (2003) COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report on the Harbor Porpoise Phocoena phocoena Pacific Ocean Population in Canada. Cosewic: Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

CMS. (2009). Convention on Migratory Species page by World Wildlife Fund.

NOAA. (2003). Marine Mammal Stock Assessment.

WDFW. (2009). Pacific harbor porpoise listing species of concern.

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