Neophocaena phocaenoides (G.
English: Finless porpoise
German: Indischer Schweinswal
Spanish: Marsopa lisa
French: Marsouin aptère
Neophocaena phocaenoides © Wurtz-Artescienza
The finless porpoise is a small porpoise and lacks a dorsal fin.
It is replaced by a ridge with small bumps which runs down the middle
of the back. The head is rounded and there is no apparent beak.
The colour is uniformly dark- to pale grey and somewhat lighter
on the ventral side. Body size reaches 170 cm and mass 70 kg, with
maxima of 200 cm and 100 kg (Jefferson and Hung, 2004; Amano, 2009).
The warm, coastal lndo-Pacific waters, both fresh and marine, are
home to the finless porpoise (Jefferson et al.1993). There are three
well-marked regional populations which warrant subspecific rank.
Even within these, significant differences in skull morphology have
been found among local populations (Rice, 1998 and refs. therein,
N. p. phocaenoides inhabits coastal waters along the mainland
of southern Asia from the Persian Gulf east to the South China Sea
and southern part of the East China Sea; also the coasts of south-eastern
Sumatra, Bangka, Belitung, Sarawak, Palawan, the Turtle Islands
in the Sulu Sea, and northern Java. The species has not been found
in South African waters, or anywhere else in Africa (Rice, 1998
and refs. therein). It penetrates into the Indus River for 60 km,
and into the Brahmaputra River for 40 km from the mouth. (Kasuya,
1999). The border between this and the next subspecies seems to
be around Taiwan Strait (Amano, 2009).
Distribution of the three subspecies of Neophocaena
phocaenoides: coastal waters and s
ome major rivers of the Indian ocean and the Western Pacific
(Reeves et al. 2008; © IUCN; enlarge
N. p. sunameri (Pilleri and Gihr, 1975) ranges in coastal
waters from the southern East China Sea north to the Liaodong Wan
in China, Korea, and Kyushu in Japan, thence along the Pacific coast
of Japan from the Setonaikai north to Sendai-wan in northern Honshu
(Rice, 1998). They seem to be absent from Sulawesi, Halmahera and
Timor, the Philippines, and the northern coast of Australia (Kasuya,
1999). Five local populations are identified in Japanese waters
based on skull morphology and mt DNA variability (Amano, 2009).
However, no obvious phylogeographical pattern was revealed between
Chinese and Japanese waters, including between saline and fresh
water populations (Yang et al. 2008a). The border between this and
the next subspecies seems to be the mouth of the Yangtse River,
but this is uncertain (Amano, 2009).
N. p. asiaeorientalis (Pilleri and Gihr, 1972) is found
in the lower and middle reaches of the Chang Jiang (Yangtse River),
where it ranges 1,600 km upstream as far as the gorges above Yichang
(200m above sea level), and including Poyang Hu and Dongting Hu
and their tributaries, the Gan Jiang and the Xiang Jiang (Rice,
3. Population size
There have been several population abundance estimates, both qualitative
and quantitative for the three subspecies over the course of the
last decade. From west to east:
In the Persian Gulf waters between Kuwait and Oman, the finless
porpoise accounted for only 2% of all cetacean sightings. Estimates
of cetacean abundance in the UAE differed significantly between
1986 and 1999 and indicate a population decline of 71%. (Preen,
In the Gulf of Kachchh, Gujarat State, India Marine Protected Area,
a wedge-like extension of the Arabian Sea,14 finless porpoises were
recorded (Singh, 2003).
In the nearshore waters of Bangladesh, 11 finless porpoises were
observed at sea during a vessel-based line-transect survey conducted
in 2004. From these, a 'Distance' analysis resulted in an abundance
estimate of 1,382 (CV=54.8%) animals (Smith et al. 2008b)
In the western Sea of Korea line-transect abundance estimate from
surveys conducted in 2003 to 2005 resulted in 36,475 individuals
(Park et al. 2006).
In the Inland Sea of Japan, aerial sighting surveys conducted in
2000 yield an abundance of 7,572 individuals, with a low density
of 0.506 individuals/km² (CV = 17.3%). Distribution was clumped
and restricted to inshore waters or near islands (Shirakihara et
al. 2007). Abundance off the Pacific coast of eastern Japan between
Sendai Bay (38°23'N) and the mouth of Tokyo Bay (35°13'N)
was estimated at 3,387 animals (CV = 32.7%) from a survey conducted
in 2000. Two distributional gaps observed at around 35°N and
37°N suggest the possibility of population subdivision (Amano
et al. 2003). Further known subpopulations number 3,807 (CV=16%)
in Ariake Sound/Tachibana Bay (Shirakihara and Shirakihara 2002);
289 (CV=19%) in Omura Bay (Shirakihara and Shirakihara 2002) and
3,743 (CV=24%) in Ise/Mikawa Bay (Yoshida 2002);
Only two cetacean species are regularly observed in Hong Kong waters
and are considered residents: the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin
chinensis) and the finless porpoise (Jefferson and Hung,
2007). An earlier estimate yielded a minimum 217 (CV= 21-150%) finless
porpoises (Jefferson et al. 2002)
Abundance estimates of the Yangtze finless porpoise N. p. asiaeorientalis
from surveys conducted in 2006 and including independent estimates
from the two lakes yield a total of approximately 1,800 animals.
However, the population continues to decline and its distribution
is becoming more fragmented. No animals were sighted e.g. in the
150 km stretch between Yueyang and Shishou, where sightings had
previously been common (Zhao et al. 2008). This compares well with
an estimate obtained during a visual survey concurrent with acoustic
observations in a total of 774 km in the Yangtze River, yielding
588 sighted animals (Akamatsu et al. 2006). However, both values
are significantly lower than the previous estimate by Zhang et al.
(1993) estimated the Yangtse population at about 2,700 individuals.
4. Biology and Behaviour
Habitat: The finless porpoise is mainly an inshore species,
occurring both in salt and fresh water. N. phocaenoides appears
to prefer murky or turbid conditions and can be found in warm rivers,
lakes (if connected to rivers), mangroves, estuaries, deltas, and
saltmarshes (Carwardine, 1995). In the Yangtse River, finless porpoises
are found up to 1,600 km from the sea and in Japanese waters, they
prefer shallow depths (<40m) while proximity to the shore is
not so important (Amano et a. 2003). In Chinese waters, water depth
and food availability are the main factors limiting inshore distribution.
The porpoises prefer to concentrate in confluences of several currents,
where boat traffic is light and small-sized fish prey are more abundant.
However, porpoises have no apparent preference for water clarity
and water velocity. The Balijiang section of the Yangtze possesses
many adequate microhabitats and is proposed as a site to create
a protected area (Wei et al. 2003).
Behaviour: Like other porpoises, their behaviour tends to
be not as energetic and showy as that of dolphins. They do not ride
bow waves, and in some areas appear to be shy of boats. Mothers
have been seen carrying calves on the denticulated area on their
backs. In the Yangtse River, however, finless porpoises are known
to leap from the water and perform "tail stands" (Jefferson
et al. 1993).
Photo © Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese
Academy of Sciences (see CSI at "links")
Schooling: Finless porpoises are generally found as singles,
pairs, or in groups of up to 12, although aggregations of up to
about 50 have been reported (Jefferson et al. 1993). Recent data
suggest, that the basic unit of a finless porpoise school is a mother/calf
pair or two adults, and that schools of three or more individuals
are aggregations of these units or of solitary individuals. Social
structure seems to be underdeveloped in the species, and the mother/calf
pair is probably the only stable social unit (Kasuya, 1999).
Reproduction: Reproduction in most areas has not been well
studied. Reports indicate that calving in the Yangtse River occurs
between April to May; on the Pacific coast of Japan between April
and June; in western Kyushu between November-December and March.
Animals form Kyushu live 25 years and attain sexual maturity at
4-6 years of age. Gestation lasts 11 months and lactation 7 months.
Calving may occur every two years. Longevity was 33 years in the
oldest specimen recorded from the South China Sea (Amano, 2009).
Food: In stomach contents investigated in western Kyushu,
Japan, fish (Gobiidae and Atherinidae) were the most numerous and
most frequently occurring prey in Omura Bay, whereas both cephalopods
(Octopodidae, Sepiidae, Sepiolidae/Sepiidae, and Loliginidae) and
fish (Clupeidae, Engraulidae, and Sciaenidae) were equally important
in Ariake Sound-Tachibana Bay. There were no differences between
day or night in stomach contents (Shirakihara et al. 2008). In the
Yangtse River, finless porpoises are reported to eat fish and shrimp,
and fish, shrimp and squid in the Yellow Sea/Bohai area and off
Pakistan. To summarise, finless porpoises are opportunistic feeders
utilising various kinds of available food items available in their
habitat (Kasuya, 1999).
Available information suggests that finless porpoises are probably
found year-round throughout their range, and show various degrees
of seasonal movement and density change which are not well documented
in most areas (Kasuya, 1999).
Annual migration is reported in the Inland Sea of Japan, where porpoises
are faced with drastic seasonal changes in surface water temperature
between 6°C (March) and 28°C (September). Their density
is lowest (40% of the peak season) in early winter, and starts to
increase in January, reaching its peak in April. Finless porpoises
migrate to and from the Pacific coast mainly through two passes
at the eastern Inland Sea of Japan. From observations in the fluctuation
of the proportion of mother-calf pairs, it is suggested that porpoises
use the Inland Sea of Japan as a breeding ground. In summer, the
animals move out to the Pacific coast (Reyes, 1991 and refs. therein;
Kasuya, 1999). In Kanmon Strait, Japan, the presence of finless
porpoises was monitored acoustically. On average, one individual
was detected every two days. Most of the finless porpoises appeared
at night, and the animals presumably swam along the current direction,
passing through the strait rather than searching for prey (Akamatsu
et al. 2008). In other areas around Japan, they are known to occur
year-round, e.g. in Ise and Mikawa Bays with a peak abundance in
April-June, or off western Kyushu.
Along the Chinese coast, finless porpoises are present all year,
but reported to have some seasonal density changes in Bohai and
on the Yellow Sea coast (low in winter and high in summer/autumn).
There, they apparently move from shallow to deeper water in winter.
While movements between the Yangtse and the ocean have not been
confirmed (Kasuya, 1999), the Yangtse population is not sedentary:
Akamatsu et al. (2002) documented daily horizontal travel distances
in two porpoises of 94.4 km and 90.3 km.
Parsons (1998a) reports on strandings in Hong Kong territorial waters,
where finless porpoises were more frequently found in winter. They
were more frequently sighted during the winter months, mostly south
of Lantau Island. Abundance was negatively correlated with water
temperature and positively with salinity. Seasonal distribution
appears to be linked with reproductive cycles and hydrography. Diurnal
patterns and tidal state also seem to affect abundance (Parsons,
In the Indus delta, finless porpoises move to the sea in April and
return to the creeks and delta in October, following the movements
of prawns (Reyes, 1991 and refs. therein)..
Direct catch: According to Reyes (1991 and refs. therein),
the species has been hunted in Japan, in particular in the East
China Sea, although direct catches were not large and have not been
reported since the mid-1980's. No direct catches of small cetaceans
existed in China in 1994-95. Incidentally captured small cetaceans
did not occupy an important place in the daily life of people in
coastal China, and they were discarded in the sea or sold at a very
low price in fish markets (Yang et al. 1999). According to Kasuya
(1999) there is some controversy about the usefulness of this species
for human consumption. People in Ayukawa on the Oshi-ka Peninsula
at the northern limit of this species, for instance, do not eat
them, believing that they have a strong purgative effect, which
was confirmed by a small experiment. However, the species is known
to be sold for human consumption in Korea (IWC, 2000), although
the source of these animals is unknown. This has been confirmed
more recently through molecular monitoring of 'whalemeat' markets
in the Republic of (South) Korea between 2003 and 2005 (Baker et
Incidental catch: Finless porpoises are accidentally caught
in nets along most of their distributional range although there
is no recent estimate of the magnitude of these catches (Amano,
2009). Of a total of 114 specimens collected between 1985-1992 off
western and north-eastern Kyushu, Japan, including part of the western
Inland Sea of Japan, 84 were killed incidentally by fisheries. The
main threats were bottom gill net (58 deaths), surface gill net
(17), trap net (7), trawl net (1) and drifting (ghost) net (1).
The operation of such fishing gear is common in other parts of Japan
and probably is killing finless porpoises off other coasts, although
usually such catches remain unreported (Kasuya, 1999 and refs. therein).
In Chinese waters, by-catch rates were estimated at 2,132 in 1994
and 1,484 in 1995, predominantly in trawl-, gill-, and stow nets
(Yang et al.1999).
Concentrations of gill netters/long liners are particularly high
in shallow nearshore waters of many distributional areas. E.g. off
the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago of southern Myanmar where at least
150 vessels were operating in the bay where the only sightings of
finless porpoises in the area were made (Smith and Tun, 2008). Similarly,
in the nearshore waters of Bangladesh a potentially excessive bycatch
in gillnet fisheries targeting elasmobranches was detected (Smith
et al. 2008b). And in Yangtze finless porpoises bycatch in unregulated
and unselective fishing constitutes a continued threat (Zhao et
Detecting deadly obstacles such as nets in their paths in time
is fundamental for cetaceans and other marine animals. However,
free-ranging finless porpoises do not use their biosonar constantly.
Instead, they inspect the area ahead of them before swimming silently
into it. They were found to inspect distances of up to 77 m, and
then swim laps without using sonar of less than 20 m (Akamatsu et
al. 2005). Although the inspection distance is long enough to ensure
a wide safety margin before facing most risks, the low echo-reflection
of monofilament gill nets (approx. 3-6 m for harbour porpoises;
Kastelein et al. 2000), ensures that the distance they swim quietly
is quite sufficient for entanglement. Safety margins could be increased
by a change in net material: e.g. nylon twine enriched with barium
sulfate can increase echolocation distance by 4.4 m (Koschinski
et al. 2006).
Habitat degradation: Habitat degradation through dredging,
pollution and noise, vessel strikes (Van Waerebeek et al. 2007)
and water development threatens finless porpoises everywhere in
their range, and this is especially true for the Yangtze River (Zhao
et al. 2008), where they face the same threats as the baiji (Lipotes
vexillifer). Increasing development requires construction
of dams for hydroelectric power and diversion of water for agriculture.
Dams prevent movements of dolphins between sections or reduce food
availability (Reyes, 1991). In the Tongling River Sever Section,
with many zigzag river channels and well-developed sandbars, the
construction of dams and bridges has fragmented and isolated the
habitat (Zhang et al. 2001). However, these effects are also noticeable
at sea: In the Inland Sea of Japan, no individuals were observed
in waters between 132°51' and 133°11'E, and between 133°43'
and 133°59'E, where sand dredging and other human activities
were made responsible for habitat fragmentation (Shirakihara et
al. 2007). Habitat degradation by land reclamantion and deforestation
of mangrove areas is also a severe problem (Amano, 2009).
Pollution: Pollution is very possibly a threat to the species.
For instance, finless porpoises disappeared from Ise Bay, Japan,
during a time of high pollution and returned when pollution was
reduced (Reyes, 1991 and refs. therein). Blubber samples from the
Inland Sea of Japan and Pacific area contained DDT isomers and metabolites
at levels up to 10 times the concentration found in striped dolphins,
and similar to those found in Baltic ringed seals with stenosis
and uterus occlusion (Kasuya, 1999 and refs. therein). Le et al.
(1999) report concentrations of butyltin and Minh et al. (1999)
of persistent organochlorines in finless porpoises.
Specimens collected in 1990 and 2000/01 from the South China Sea
also showed high levels of DDT and PCB concentrations (Ramu et al.
2006). And the same was found in tissue samples from Hong Kong waters,
suggesting that PBDEs should be classified as priority pollutant
in Asia. Elevated residues of PCBs and DDTs suggests the species
may be at risk (Ramu et al. 2005). Parsons (1999) reports that mercury
levels were high enough in some individuals as to pose a health
risk and Parsons (1998a) noted that the number of reported small
cetacean strandings in Hong Kong has increased dramatically in recent
years: possibly due to escalating levels of anthropogenic pollution.
In the Yangtse River, damage to the riverine ecosystem comes from
the high level of pollution produced by several industries. In Yangtse
river dolphins polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated
diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and
dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs) were determined in tissue samples.The hazard
quotients based on toxic equivalency were determined to be greater
than one in all individuals for these contaminants, suggesting that
a reduction of environmental contamination may contribute greatly
to protecting this highly endangered species (Yang et al. 2008b).
Finally, in Eastern Dongting Lake, mercury concentrations in some
key tissues were much higher than those reported for other Phocoenidae
species (Dong et al. 2006).
Range states (Reeves et al. 2008) :
Bahrain; Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; China; Hong Kong;
India; Indonesia; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Iraq; Japan; Korea,
Republic of; Kuwait; Malaysia; Myanmar; Pakistan; Philippines; Saudi
Arabia; Singapore; Sri Lanka; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand;
United Arab Emirates; Viet Nam.
The species is listed in Appendix II of CITES. N. phocaeoides
is listed in Appendix II of CMS. The IUCN considers the species
as being "Vulnerable" (Reeves et al. 2008). This is justified
on the basis of taxonomic uncertainty, range discontinuity, a 70%
decline over the past 30 years (qualifying for "Endangered")
for the two population where some abundance data is available (Sea
of Japan, Yangtse River and adjacent lakes), and a suspected overall
decline of 30% over the last 3 generations.
The species as a whole is in no immediate danger of extinction,
but several populations (possibly representing separate taxa) are
apparently declining (Jefferson and Hung, 2004). The IWC sub-committee
discussed, in particular, the Inland Sea of Japan, where this species
has declined in abundance in recent years (IWC, 2000). The causes
of this decline are not fully understood. Incidental mortality in
various kinds of fisheries is the only documented anthropogenic
factor affecting the survival of finless porpoises. However, a number
of anthropogenic influences such as chemical pollution, depletion
of prey species, loss of habitat due to construction or extraction
of sand, ship strikes may all have contributed to the decline. Here,
as elsewhere in the species' range, human populations adjacent to
the finless porpoise's habitat are increasing in size and becoming
more industrialised, so the expectation should be that anthropogenic
pressures will continue and intensify. See also Perrin et al. (1996)
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© Boris Culik (2010) Odontocetes.
The toothed whales: "Neophocaena phocaenoides".
UNEP/CMS Secretariat, Bonn, Germany. http://www.cms.int/reports/small_cetaceans/index.htm
© Illustrations by Maurizio Würtz, Artescienza.
© Maps by IUCN.