Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Harbour porpoise underwater
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Harbour porpoise fact file

Harbour porpoise description

GenusPhocoena (1)

The harbour porpoise is the most commonly seen porpoise (2), and is the most widely distributed of all cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in northern Europe (4). It is easily recognised as it has a low triangular dorsal fin and lacks a beak (2). It is small in comparison to other porpoises, has a plump body with a dark grey to bluish coloured back, a pale belly and a rounded head (5). At birth, young harbour porpoises are dull in colour and typically have 'birth lines', which look like folds in the skin, and persist for the first few hours after birth (5).

Marsouin Commun.
Marsopa Común.
Male length: 1.9 m (2)
Female length: 1.9 - 2.2 m (2)

Harbour porpoise biology

A social species, the harbour porpoise travels in groups numbering between two to five individuals (2), but larger groups may form during migration (4). It feeds on a variety of fish, including herring, mackerel and anchovy (2), a variety of invertebrates are also taken (4). It is known that echolocation is used in the detection and capture of prey, but this is not yet fully understood. Sight and passive listening (for the sounds made by prey) are also important during hunting (7). Mating occurs in summer, and gestation (pregnancy) takes 11 months (4). The calf is suckled for up to eight months and sexual maturity is reached at about four years of age (4). The harbour porpoise has possibly the shortest life-span of any cetacean; they rarely live for more than 12 years (2).


Harbour porpoise range

Found in sub-Arctic and cool temperate waters of the North Atlantic and North Pacific (5), the harbour porpoise is typically a species of coastal areas, although it also occurs over most of the European continental shelf (4). In the UK, seasonal concentrations occur between July and October off western and south-western Ireland, west Wales, the west of Scotland, around Shetland and Orkney as well as around north-east Scotland (4). This species used to occur in the south coast of England and southern parts of the North Sea, but it is now rare in these waters (4).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

See this species on Google Earth.


Harbour porpoise habitat

Favours shallow, cold coastal waters (4). Most sightings have been made within ten kilometres of the land. It frequents relatively shallow bays, estuaries, and tidal channels under about 200 kilometres in depth, and will swim a considerable distance up river (6).


Harbour porpoise status

Classified as Least Concern (LC) under the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Annexes II and IV of the EC Habitats Directive, Appendix II of the Bern Convention, and North, Baltic and Black Sea and western North Atlantic populations are listed under Appendix II of the Bonn Convention (the Convention on Migratory Species). All cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are listed on Annex A of EU Council Regulation 338/97; they are therefore treated by the EU as if they are included in CITES Appendix I, so that commercial trade is prohibited, the species is also listed on Appendix II of CITES. Covered by the terms of the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS). In the UK all cetaceans are fully protected under Schedule 5 the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985 (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Harbour porpoise threats

Since the 1940s, there is evidence of a decline in the numbers of this species in UK waters (3). The main threats are thought to include entanglement in fishing nets, chemical and noise pollution, hunting, boat traffic, and lack of food (5).


Harbour porpoise conservation

A UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, the harbour porpoise is protected in UK waters by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Orders, 1985; it is illegal to intentionally kill, injure, or harass any cetacean (whale or dolphin) species in UK waters (3). The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS) has been signed by seven European countries, including the UK. Provision is made under this agreement to set up protected areas, promote research and monitoring, pollution control and increase public awareness (7). Increased awareness of this species may help to secure its future (2).

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.
To help conserve this species by working in the field with Earthwatch, click here.
There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.
View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

To contribute to the conservation of whales and dolphins see:



Information authenticated by WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.



The bill of a bird. In cetacea (whales and dolphins): the elongated forward part of the head, comprising the lower jaw and upper jaw or 'rostrum'.
A group comprising all whales, dolphins and porpoises.


  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2008)
  2. Carwardine, M., Hoyt, E., Fordyce, R.E. and and Gill, P. (1998) Whales and Dolphins, the Ultimate Guide to Marine Mammals. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  3. UKBAP (June, 2002)
  4. Sea Watch Foundation (June, 2002)
  5. WDCS (June, 2002)
  6. Cawardine, M. (1995) Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  7. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Image credit

Harbour porpoise underwater  
Harbour porpoise underwater

© Florian Graner / naturepl.com

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