Species Profile

Harbour Porpoise Pacific Ocean population

Scientific Name: Phocoena phocoena vomerina
Taxonomy Group: Mammals
COSEWIC Range: British Columbia, Pacific Ocean, Arctic Ocean
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: April 2016
COSEWIC Status: Special Concern
COSEWIC Status Criteria:
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: This species is found in the coastal waters of the eastern North Pacific Ocean and uses British Columbian waters year-round. It is highly susceptible to mortality by entanglement in fishing gear, and particularly sensitive to noise. Although surveys are too infrequent to determine population trends, there is ongoing deterioration of habitat quality due to coastal developments, increasing noise, and other factors which are unlikely to be reversed.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: Species considered in April 1991 and placed in the Data Deficient category. Re-examined in November 2003 and designated Special Concern. Status re-examined and confirmed in April 2016.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Special Concern
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2005-07-14

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Harbour Porpoise

Harbour Porpoise Photo 1

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Description

The Pacific Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena vomerina) is the smallest cetacean in British Columbia (BC), ranging from 1.5 to 1.6 m and 45 to 60 kg at maturity. The species has a small dorsal fin and is grey to brown dorsally, and white to greyish-white ventrally. It is typically elusive and difficult to observe in the wild, but the inshore distribution, year-round residency and proximity to populated areas in BC results in a higher probability of exposure to human-made activities and influences than most other cetaceans in the province. Strandings of Harbour Porpoises are reported more often in BC than those of other cetacean species. Regional population changes have the potential to go unnoticed because systematic surveys are spatially and temporally discontinuous, and there are no comparable data sets over long time periods. (Updated 2017/01/24)

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Distribution and Population

Globally, Harbour Porpoises have a circumpolar distribution in cold temperate to sub-arctic waters of the northern hemisphere. In BC, Harbour Porpoises occur throughout coastal waters. They are more often found in shallow regions, but are not restricted to these habitats. (Updated 2017/01/24)

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Habitat

Harbour Porpoises generally occupy an ecological niche consisting of coastal shelf waters less than 150 m deep, with temperatures ranging between 6 to 17?C. In BC, they also occupy deeper waters exceeding 200 metres. Identified deep water habitats exist in southern and northern BC: in the Strait of Georgia, off the southwest coast of Haida Gwaii, and southeast of Cape St. James. (Updated 2017/01/24)

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Biology

Harbour Porpoises mature by about age four—younger than most cetaceans. Parturition occurs in the spring followed by a period of mating activity in the late summer/early fall. Harbour Porpoises feed on a variety of small, schooling fish and squid, often in areas with high rates of current flow. They are prey of Transient (also known as Bigg’s) Killer Whales in BC. Predation on Harbour Porpoises by sharks is likely, but has only been reported once in BC waters. Based on telemetry, photo-identification and some genetic studies, population structure may exist in BC waters, but boundaries are not clear. It remains uncertain as to whether a single population or subpopulations of Harbour Porpoises exist within BC waters. (Updated 2017/01/24)

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Threats

The overall calculated and assigned threat impact is High to Medium for Pacific Harbour Porpoise. This is a result of the combined effect of a number of low to medium-impact threats. The principal known anthropogenic threats to Harbour Porpoises are habitat degradation due to acoustic disturbance, entanglement in fishing gear, and fisheries. Other threats that are known, suspected, or predicted to have negative impacts on survival of Harbour Porpoise include shipping traffic, pollution, pathogens, predation, and habitat loss due to coastal developments. Synergistic effects of anthropogenic activities may also limit Harbour Porpoises. (Updated 2017/01/24)

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Protection

Federal Protection

More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Recovery Progress and Activities

Summary of Progress to Date Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DFO) is currently in the process of drafting a Management Plan to support the recovery of the Harbour Porpoise. The porpoise also is protected by the Federal Fisheries Act and the Marine Mammal Regulations which protects marine mammals from disturbance. Harbour porpoises are particularly sensitive to human activities and are prone to becoming entangled in fishing nets. Continued development and use of its prime habitat by humans are some of the main threats to this species. Their current population status is unknown. Summary of Research/Monitoring Research is underway to determine the essential habitat of the Harbour Porpoise. The BC Cetaceans Sightings Network is a joint partnership between DFO and the Vancouver Aquarium that includes a network of volunteers that collect, verify, and enter sightings into a database which will aid in determining the important habitat for the Harbour Porpoise. This information is compared with popular commercial fishing areas to predict sites where potential entanglement might occur. DFO works in conjunction with its partners to increase awareness of local species at risk and their habitats. Workshops, meetings, and presentations are conducted to educate the public on Species at Risk information, conservation issues, and ways to minimize human vessel disturbance. The Be Whale Wise Brochure: Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers and Viewers is distributed to expand the sightings network and motivate people to make behavioural changes that will benefit marine mammal populations. Summary of Recovery Activities Straitwatch, a stewardship group, informs residents and visitors of southern and northern Vancouver Island on ways to minimize human impacts on marine mammals as well as monitors coastal waters for potential disturbance activities. DFO also tracks incidents related to marine mammals through a response and tracking program. The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre provides updates on their website with information regarding species at risk and recent sightings from their network of volunteer observers. URLs Department of Fisheries and Oceanswww.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/species/species_harbourporpoise_e.asp Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre updateswww.wildwhales.org

Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

20 record(s) found.

Reports on the Progress of Recovery Document Implementation

COSEWIC Status Reports

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Harbour Porpoise, Pacific Ocean population (2004-10-22)

    They appear to be particularly sensitive to human activities, and are prone to becoming entrapped and killed in fishing nets. They are a short lived shy species that are now rarely seen at the highly developed areas of Victoria and Haro Strait. Continued development and use of its prime habitat by humans are some of the main threats. They are displaced by underwater noise, and could be affected by contaminants in their food chain.
  • Response Statement - Harbour Porpoise, Pacific Ocean population (2017-01-11)

    This species is found in the coastal waters of the eastern North Pacific Ocean and uses British Columbian waters year-round. It is highly susceptible to mortality by entanglement in fishing gear, and particularly sensitive to noise. Although surveys are too infrequent to determine population trends, there is ongoing deterioration of habitat quality due to coastal developments, increasing noise, and other factors which are unlikely to be reversed.

Action Plans

  • Multi-species Action Plan for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada (2018-08-01)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada applies to lands and waters occurring within the boundaries of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR). The plan meets the requirements for action plans set out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA (s.47)) for species requiring an action plan that regularly occur at this site. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits to other species of conservation concern that regularly occur at GINPR.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site (2016-07-04)

    The Multi-species Action Plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site meets the requirements for an action plan set out in the Species at Risk Act (SARA (s.47)) for species requiring an action plan that occur inside the boundary of the site. This action plan will be updated to more comprehensively include measures to conserve and recover the marine species at risk once the first integrated Land, Sea, People management plan for Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve & Haida Heritage Site (hereafter called Gwaii Haanas) is complete. Measures described in this plan will also provide benefits for other species of conservation concern that regularly occur in Gwaii Haanas.
  • Multi-species Action Plan for Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (2017-08-24)

    Backed by the Insular Mountain Range of Vancouver Island and facing the open Pacific Ocean, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada (Pacific Rim NPR) protects and presents the rich natural and cultural heritage of Canada's west coast. Pacific Rim NPR consists of three distinct units, the Long Beach Unit, Broken Group Islands Unit, and West Coast Trail Unit, each offering a range of unique visitor experiences. With significant areas (51,216 ha in total) of old growth, temperate rainforest, coastal dune systems, wetlands and foreshore, and marine habitats, the park demonstrates the interconnectedness between land, sea, and people. These natural wonders are interwoven with the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations culture (past and present), and that of European explorers and settlers.

Management Plans

  • Management Plan for the Pacific Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena) in Canada (2009-12-04)

    Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are a small marine mammal reaching a length of about 2.2 m and weight of about 75 kg when fully grown, making them the smallest cetacean in Canadian waters. The species exhibits sexual dimorphism, with females of this species generally being larger than males. Harbour porpoise are often difficult to observe in the wild, in part due to the grey-brown counter-colouration on the dorsal surface with lighter lateral undersides. A distinctive lateral grey-brown stripe(s) extending from the corner of the mouth, to the pectoral flipper on both sides of the animal can sometimes be observed. This is a shy species that seldom rides bow waves of vessels and rarely, if ever leaps out of water. Further complicating the observation of wild harbour porpoise is that the 15-20 cm high dorsal fin rarely makes an exit or entry splash.

Orders

  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (2004-10-19)

    The Order acknowledges receipt by the Governor in Council of the assessments of the status of wildlife species done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The purpose of SARA is to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.
  • Order Amending Schedules 1 to 3 to the Species at Risk Act (volume 139, number 15, 2005) (2005-07-27)

    The Minister of the Environment is recommending, pursuant to section 27 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), that 43 species be added to Schedule 1, the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This recommendation is based on scientific assessments by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and on consultations with governments, Aboriginal peoples, wildlife management boards, stakeholders and the Canadian public.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2004 (2004-09-16)

    2004 Annual Report to the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2015-2016 (2016-10-13)

    Over the past year COSEWIC re-examined the status of 25 wildlife species; of these, the majority (68%) were re-assessed at the same or lower level of risk. Of a total of 45 species assessed, seven were assigned a status of Not at Risk (two re-assessments and five new assessments). To date, and with the submission of this report, COSEWIC’s assessments now include 724 wildlife species in various risk categories, including 320 Endangered, 172 Threatened, 209 Special Concern, and 23 Extirpated (i.e., no longer found in the wild in Canada). In addition, 15 wildlife species have been assessed as Extinct, 54 wildlife species have been designated as Data Deficient, and 177 have been assessed and assigned Not at Risk status.

Permits and Related Agreements

  • Explanation for issuing licence(#20-PPAC-00019 ), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2020-05-01)

    Parks Canada is a dedicated partner in the Government of Canada's efforts to support the recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales and health of all marine mammals. Parks Canada will perform surveys and monitor activity within, and adjacent to, the marine waters of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in an effort to contribute to overall understanding of presence, population size, and use of critical habitat by Southern Resident Killer Whales and other marine mammals.
  • Explanation for issuing licence(#20-PPAC-00020 ), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2020-05-01)

    Parks Canada is a dedicated partner in the Government of Canada's efforts to support the recovery of Southern Resident Killer Whales and health of all marine mammals. Parks Canada will perform surveys and monitor activity within, and adjacent to, the marine waters of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in an effort to contribute to overall understanding of presence, population size, and use of critical habitat by Southern Resident Killer Whales and other marine mammals. Closest approach distance for photo identification is 200m for killer whales and 40m for other cetaceans. Acoustic samplings using a portable hydrophone is permitted to a minimum of 200m to killer whales or 100m of other cetaceans. Vessel approach must maintain a 3-4 knot speed and stay behind or to the side of any individual or group of whales. Vessel engines and depth sounders must be off while collecting acoustic samples. Engagement time is limited to 30 minutes per whale, per day.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#PAC MML SARA 29), persuant to the provisions of section 73 of SARA (2006-05-11)

    Researchers will obtain recordings of echolocation clicks of southern resident killer whales, harbour porpoise and Dall's porpoise, to understand the foraging behaviour of these species. This research supports the recovery objectives for southern resident Killer Whales. Hydroacoustic and visual data will be collected from a survey vessel. The researchers are experienced in operating near killer whales. Passive drift sampling will be used to monitor acoustics. No animals will be disturbed, captured, or tagged. Vessel speeds for other observations will be slow and engine noise kept to a minimum in the presence of marine mammals. Disturbance to the species and their habitat is anticipated to be negligible.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#PAC MML SARA 46), persuant to the provisions of section 73 of SARA (2006-08-02)

    As part of the Marine Mammal Incident Response Program, Fisheries and Oceans Canada monitors all marine mammal and sea turtle incidents in order to take action in the case of: inappropriate or illegal human activities; to monitor disease in wild stocks; to investigate trends in other natural occurrences that may impact species survival.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#PAC MML SARA 48), persuant to the provisions of section 73 of SARA (2006-08-08)

    The goals are: to monitor population trends of grey and humpback whales off the coast of British Columbia; to determine what and how much grey and humpback whales eat in the area; to test whether there is any social structure to the grey whale herd; to determine whether and how grey and humpback whales use sound to locate prey; to track the underwater behaviour of grey and humpback whales relative to their prey. Techniques will include: bottom samplers and underwater video; use of multi-beam sonar; collection of faecal samples from grey whales using a dipnet; a passive hydrophone array will be used to quantify the whales' use of sound on the feeding grounds. Behaviour of the whales on the feeding grounds will also be monitored.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#PAC MML SARA 67), persuant to the provisions of section 73 of SARA (2007-04-04)

    Project activities and goals are supported by strategies outlined in the National Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer whales and the Recovery Strategy for Blue, Fin and Sei Whales.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#PAC SARA 87), persuant to the provisions of section 73 of SARA (2008-06-01)

    To collect baseline data on marine mammal species distribution and abundance in British Columbia. The work will follow pre-set transect lines, travelling at a speed of approximately 8 knots and adhering to Distance Sampling methods.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: November 2004 (2004-11-23)

    The Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003 as part of its strategy for the protection of wildlife species at risk. Attached to the act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, hereinafter referred to as the 'SARA list'. Canadians are invited to comment on whether all or some of the species included in this document should be added to the SARA list.
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