WDCS's Pine Eisfeld tells us more about the International and National protection mechanisms in place to protect these often overlooked little critters. Over to you Pine ....
According to SCANS and SCANS II surveys (big EU funded surveys done in 1994 and 2004), harbour porpoise are notably the most abundant species in UK and European waters and are classified as being in need of strict protection under Annex IV of the EC Habitats and Species Directive 1992 (Habitats Directive) and the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). Harbour porpoise are listed in various other conventions and are covered by agreements and are supposedly protected by national UK law, but the harbour porpoise still seem to be at risk.
It all started out well for the harbour porpoise; being listed in Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) 1981. This made any person guilty of an offence, if they intentionally damaged or destroyed, or obstructed access to, any structure or place which any wild animal included in Schedule 5 uses for shelter or protection; or if they intentionally disturbed such an animal.
In 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CrOW Act) amended the WCA 1981 by adding ‘recklessness’ into the clause and by not linking disturbance to a place or structure. This was a great success in terms of protection for these wee critters, as it was very hard to prove that an act of disturbance has been committed intentionally!
All was looking good, but in 2007, the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 came into force which amended the WCA 1981 taking away protection from cetaceans, especially harbour porpoise, for suddenly they were only protected from trade, and not from anything else they had been previously protected from, like for example disturbance.
This was all consolidated in 2010 by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations which continued to omit the mention of the word ‘recklessness’ and substituted the word ‘intentional’ with ‘deliberate’.
Harbour porpoise are also supposed to have Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated for them. SACs are strictly protected sites designated under the EC Habitats Directive. Article 3 of the Habitats Directive requires the establishment of a European network of important high-quality conservation sites that will make a significant contribution to conserving the 189 habitat types and 788 species identified in Annexes I and II of the Directive. The listed habitat types and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level (excluding birds). Of the Annex I habitat types, 78 are believed to occur in the UK. Of the Annex II species, 43 are native to, and normally resident in, the UK, like the harbour porpoise.
Despite a wealth of relevant scientific research, ongoing monitoring and continuing assessment of the UK’s cetacean species, the harbour porpoise is currently completely unprotected even though a number of sites have been proposed. There are locations known to be important for cetaceans that, if protected, could make a valuable and increasingly necessary contribution to the protection of this species.
Germany is doing better and has designated their part of the Dogger Bank (a huge sandbank in the North Sea between the UK and Europe), a SAC for harbour porpoise as a qualifying feature as they consider the Dogger Bank to represent an important calving area. However, at the same time, the UK did the opposite and did not list the harbour porpoise as a qualifying feature at its part of the Dogger Bank (and possibly other sites). By doing so, the UK is failing to give the European Commission a complete picture of the status of the species within the UK and, hence, the territory of the EU.
Moreover, it also risks threatening the future status of the species within the UK. When undertaking an appropriate assessment of impacts at a site, all features of European importance (both primary and non-primary) need to be considered. Omitting the harbour porpoise from the site details will, therefore, mean that it is not taken into account in any subsequent appropriate assessment and the decision-making process (and protection) that flows from it under the Habitats Directive.