A baltic species slipping away

Name the animal: I live in the frigid waters of a northern sea. I enjoy swimming close to the coast, exploring harbors and estuaries, but I steer clear of people. I’m often found alone, but when I run into friends, I use echolocation to communicate, and to hunt for food. I usually don’t jump out of the water, but when I rise to the surface to breathe, I make a sound that could be mistaken for a snorting pig. Any guesses? A porpoise, you say? A Baltic Harbor Porpoise? You’re correct! Nicely done.

In all likelihood, you haven’t heard of this small marine mammal before – and that’s not surprising given that they’re a fairly reserved species who keep to themselves and shy away from human beings. Not to mention the fact that there are only a few hundred Baltic Harbor Porpoises left in Sweden’s northern arm of the Atlantic… And it won’t be long before they’re gone entirely if nothing is done.

The Predicament of the Porpoise

The Baltic Sea – the closest body of water to the Simris headquarters and a place close to our hearts – is home to a diverse variety of creatures: an estimated 100 species of fish, 30 species of sea birds and over 350 species of algae. But only 4 mammal species call the Baltic home, one of which is our little porpoise friend. Mammals are top predators within their respective habitats and help regulate the food chain. It makes sense, then, that mammals are also good indicators of the overall health of an ecosystem. And right now, it’s not going well for the Baltic’s porpoises.

The critically endangered status of Baltic Harbor Porpoises is largely due to them being accidentally caught in the set nets of local fisheries scooping up cod, flatfish, or any of the other types of fish that are caught in the area. Since porpoises need to come to the surface to breathe, many drown when they get stuck in the large, sweeping nets.

Another affliction of these small whales is the increase in underwater noise created by humans. Remember the echolocation “clicks” we mentioned that these creatures use to communicate and find prey with? They aren’t quite as effective with the jumble of noises coming from boats, construction, jet skis and dredging – and the Baltic Sea has some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Already sounding off at a high frequency that doesn’t travel far, these porpoises’ clicks have an even shorter radius with the added noise pollution, resulting in lower chances of finding food and mating successfully and a greater risk of losing each other, namely calves and their mothers. The situation is dire… dire… dire.

Bringing Back The Endangered Porpoise

Saving porpoises comes down to instating a few measures. To reduce the instances of porpoises being caught as bycatch in set nets, ideally there should be a decrease in this type of fish-ing within the most popular porpoise hang-outs. Gear like pots and traps, which don’t pose the threat of bycatch, can be used instead. For when set nets are necessary, “pingers“ should be attached to them. These devices emit a pinging sound that serves as a warning to the porpoises, scaring them off so they can steer clear of the nets.

And how about that underwater cacophony? Shipping traffic restrictions must be put in place. Shipping routes must be adjusted where necessary. Speed limits on leisure watercraft must be set up. And all these regulations must, of course, be adhered to and enforced. Education is an important piece of the puzzle – the more people understand the plight of these animals, the higher the likelihood they’ll adhere to the measures set up to protect them. That’s just what Kjellkvist and Kämpe are setting out to do through their oceanic adventure – to shine a limelight on this struggling species and the role we can play in their resurgence.

Rowers Sören Kjellkvist and Måns Kämpe
in their 24-foot rowboat, Albedo

An Awareness Row

As it happens, Simris’ Founder Fredrika Gullfot is spending a lot of time at the gym to help these cetacean creatures. No, she’s not going to swim with them. Next month, she’ll be joining Sören Kjellkvist and Måns Kämpe as they row their 24-foot rowboat, Albedo, about 200 nautical miles from Stockholm to the city of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland. The journey is expected to take 36 hours and is the kick-off for Kjellkvist and Kämpe’s upcoming trip in the same vessel across the Atlantic, which will cover a distance of 3,240 nautical miles and stretch over 3 months. That’s equal to about 3 million rowing strokes. The motivation for these courageous, determined individuals is the remaining few hundred Baltic Harbor Porpoises, and the massive effort required to raise awareness on how to save them.

But you don’t need to row across the Atlantic to help the Baltic Harbor Porpoise. Simply educat-ing yourself about the problem and sharing information about it with others can go a long way. You can also show your support on the Coalition Clean Baltic’s Facebook page by tagging any photos of the sea with #SaveTheBalticPorpoise.

If you happen to find yourself on or around Baltic waters and catch sight of a porpoise, report it here. Not sure how you’ll know it’s a porpoise? Just listen for the snorting pig sound when it breathes. Any knowledge of porpoise whereabouts helps as we try to figure out how these animals live and what we can do to ensure their survival.

Sören Kjellkvist rowing

Sören Kjellkvist and Måns Kämpe prepare for their row across the Atlantic

Måns Kämpe on the rowboat

In the meantime, Simris is proud to be a sponsor of Kjellkvist and Kämpe’s Row the Atlantic expedition. We wish our fearless Simris leader Gullfot the best of luck as she joins these two seasoned rowers on their dry run row to Gotland in just a couple of weeks. And we wish Kjellkvist and Kämpe strength, stamina and determination as they brave giant swells, painful blisters and so much more to safely reach their final destination – the Caribbean – next winter. With some devoted training paired with our algae-sourced Athletes omegas, the Albedo team should be good to go. Saving the porpoises, powered by the magic of algae: never underestimate the sea and all it can do for us.

Porpoise photo credit: Solvin Zankl