The UK must better protect harbour porpoises - court ruling

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 19 October 2018

The UK has come under pressure to better protect harbour porpoises after the European Court of Justice ruled that it had failed to provide enough sites for the only member of the porpoise family found in European waters.

Harbour porpoise and young calf
© Rohan Holt

“We’ve been in the EU for many years, and for decades have had the ability to designate Marine Protected Areas(MPAs) for these emblematic creatures.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt,
MCS, Principle Specialist, Marine Protected Areas

The harbour porpoise is the smallest of UK cetaceans and can be spotted close to shore in shallow waters. Often seen on their own or in small groups they make a loud chuffing noise when they come to the surface which has resulted in the nickname ‘Puffing Pig’. The cetaceans common name is derived from the Latin porcus – pig, and piscinus – fish.

There are seven areas in English, Welsh and Scottish waters designated to protect porpoises, six of which were created after previous action by the European Commission. But environmentalists said scientific evidence showed more are needed, particularly in Scotland.

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, MCS, Principle Specialist Marine Protected Areas, says: “We’ve been in the EU for many years, and for decades have had the ability to designate Marine Protected Areas(MPAs) for these emblematic creatures.

“It took a legal challenge from WWF to get the first protected areas for cetaceans in place, rather than our Government thinking these would be a good idea. As such, and with this subsequent ruling, we can clearly see that Government needs to do more. And indeed, with only 4% of our MPAs seeing closures to bottom trawling and scallop dredging, they are principally ‘paper parks’. Come on Government, stop the talk, and start properly protecting these areas.’

Environmental law charity ClientEarth’s wildlife conservation lawyer Tatiana Lujan said the UK had “dragged its heels and failed to comply” with rules to protect harbour porpoises.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) said harbour porpoises “live fast and die young”, at just 12 years on average.

Recent evidence shows they may be struggling to reproduce successfully because of high levels of pollution, and they die in high numbers in fishing nets and are disturbed by ocean noise including wind farm construction.

While efforts to designate the existing six sites is “welcome”, more needs to be done, WDC said.

A spokeswoman for the Environment Department (Defra) said: “In the last year alone, we’ve taken significant steps to protect harbour porpoise in our waters, including creating six new special areas of conservation for this important species.”

She said the UK had taken other steps to protect sea life including proposing 41 new marine conservation zones around the country.

“We are committed to protecting our seas and marine life, and will now carefully consider the court’s ruling,” she added.

Actions you can take

  1. Report your wildlife sightings

Did you know?…

Over 1,000 marine wildlife sightings were reported to MCS last year