Whales, dolphins and porpoises

Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) © Neil Golding

JNCC conducts and commissions research and surveillance of cetaceans. These projects aim to establish and maintain an adequate information base to support existing legal requirements and other obligations. 


Twenty-eight species of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) are known to occur in north-west European waters. In UK waters, Eleven species may be seen regularly throughout the year including minke, fin and sperm whales, harbour porpoises and four species of dolphin - bottlenose, common, Atlantic white-sided and white beaked.


A variety of conservation issues affect cetaceans in UK waters today, many of which are Related to human activity. They include fishing, pollution and the effects of noise from shipping, oil and gas exploration , military activity and tourism.The degree of impact of any human activity, varies considerably between different species and depending on their ecology, distribution and abundance.


A range of legislative instruments oblige the UK to support research that has a bearing on the conservation status of cetacean populations. All species are listed on Annex IV of the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). It requires regular assessments of the conservation status of all species that cover abundance, distribution and the pressures and threats experienced. In addition, bottlenose dolphin and harbour porpoise are listed on the Directive’s Annex II which requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation where areas can be identified.


The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (Bonn Convention) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS), oblige signatories – which include the UK - to apply a range of research and management measures aimed at the conservation of all cetaceans. An objective under ASCOBANS commits signatories to reducing the incidental catch of harbour porpoises in commercial fisheries to 1.7 per cent of the species’ abundance, a target specified in the EU Regulation 812/2004.


JNCC support of cetacean conservation includes:


  • conducting and commissioning research and surveillance to provide an adequate information base for supporting existing legal requirements and other obligations. For example, the Seabirds at Sea Team collect opportunistic sightings of cetaceans and, through collaboration with the Sea Watch Foundation and Sea Mammal Research Unit, have produced statistics on the distribution and relative abundance of cetaceans in the waters off north-west Europe. These data form a series of spreadsheets called the Joint Cetacean Database (JCD) which are available for download and are presented in the Atlas of Cetacean distribution in north-west European waters (2003);
  • the Joint Cetacean Protocol (JCP), which will deliver information on the distribution, abundance and population trends of cetacean species occurring in north-west European waters. The JCP will build on cetacean sightings datasets utilised in the Atlas of cetacean distribution in north-west European waters with a view to providing Government and stakeholders with up-to-date information on the conservation status of cetaceans in north-west European waters; and 
  • day-to-day management of the UK Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved administrations.