Neophocaena phocaenoides 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Cetartiodactyla Phocoenidae

Scientific Name: Neophocaena phocaenoides (G. Cuvier, 1829)
Common Name(s):
English Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise
Taxonomic Notes:

The recognition of two externally distinct morphological forms of Finless Porpoises as separate biological species, the Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) and the Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoise (N. asiaeorientalis), was accepted only recently when it was demonstrated that the two forms are reproductively isolated (and likely have been separated since the last glacial maximum) even though they occur sympatrically in a fairly large area of eastern Asia (Wang et al. 2008, Jefferson and Wang 2011). [Much of the literature published before ca 2010 refers to all Finless Porpoises (both species) as N. phocaenoides.] Differences in the external morphology of the dorsal aspect of the two species are distinguishable even amongst free-ranging animals (as opposed to only specimens in-hand) (Wang et al. 2010). Intermediates between the two main forms have never been reported even though several hundreds to thousands of carcasses have been examined. The two species also clearly differ in craniometry (Amano et al. 1992, Jefferson 2002).

There is evidence to suggest subpopulation structure within Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises in some areas (Jefferson 2002, Yang et al. 2008, Chen et al. 2010, Xu et al. 2010, Li et al. 2011, Ju et al. 2012, L. Li et al. 2013, S. Li et al. 2013, Jia et al. 2014, Lin et al. 2014) and this may apply throughout much of the species’ distribution.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Vulnerable A2cde+3cde+4cde ver 3.1
Year Published: 2017
Date Assessed: 2017-08-10
Assessor(s): Wang, J.Y. , Reeves, R.
Reviewer(s): Jefferson, T.A., Minton, G., Sutaria, D., Ponnampalam, L. & Taylor, B.L.
Facilitator/Compiler(s): Lowry, L.
With some of the largest concentrations of Humans in the world living along the shores of, and harvesting the resources from, the warm coastal waters inhabited by Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises, the impacts of human activities on this species must be considerable. Partly because of their small size, which limits their strength to break free once entangled, phocoenids are exceptionally vulnerable to incidental mortality in gillnets (e.g., Jefferson and Curry 1994), and incidental mortality in fishing gear has been documented throughout the range of Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises. Fishing effort with gear documented to catch Finless Porpoises accidentally (including gillnets, trawls, stow nets, and seines) is intense in many areas where the species occurs or occurred. Although not quantified as rigorously as for some N. asiaeorientalis populations, regional declines (and possible local extirpations) of N. phocaenoides have been reported, presumably due to a combination of fishing pressure, coastal development and industrialization, pollution, and heavy vessel traffic (Reeves et al. 1997, Collins et al. 2005, Braulik et al. 2010).

The data are insufficient to make a rigorous quantitative assessment of population trend for this species in any part of its range, but the scale of threats is large enough over enough of the range to suspect and infer a decline of at least 30% over the last three generations (about 45 years, assuming 15 years/generation as estimated for N. asiaeorientalis by Moore 2015) (A2), over three generations into the future (A3), and over a three-generation period that includes both the past and the future (A4). The factor most responsible for such a decline would be incidental mortality in fisheries (subcriterion d, “exploitation”), but the loss and degradation of habitat (subcriterion c) and pollution (chemical and acoustic; subcriterion e) are likely contributing factors as well. None of the threats has been seriously addressed in any part of the species’ range, even though threat levels are presumably increasing.

Therefore, the Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise qualifies for Vulnerable under Red List criteria A2cde, A3cde, and A4cde, considering that the causes of the suspected/inferred decline in population size—bycatch, decline in habitat quality, and possibly pollution—have not ceased, may not be well understood, and may not all be reversible.
Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:

The type specimen was supposed to have come from the Cape of Good Hope, but this location is believed to be erroneous; it is now generally accepted that the type locality is the Malabar coast of India (Rice 1998, Jefferson and Hung 2004).

In general, Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises occur in a narrow strip of shallow (usually <50 m deep) coastal marine waters (as well as some river mouths and estuaries) around the northern rim of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans from the Persian/Arabian Gulf (Preen 2004, Collins et al. 2005) eastwards around the rim of the Indian Ocean to the Indo-Malay region (Ponnampalam 2012) and to Java, Indonesia (but apparently not the Philippines) and northwards to the Taiwan Strait and central Chinese waters (Gao 1991, Gao and Zhou 1995). This is the more tropical and wide-ranging of the two species of Finless Porpoises. Records of this species from northern Chinese waters (e.g., Wang 1992) probably represent rare or extralimital events. Finless Porpoises are seen regularly (when sea conditions are favourable) in Sarawak, East Malaysia (Minton et al. 2011), in at least parts of Peninsular Malaysia (e.g., they are the most frequently seen cetaceans around the Langkawi Archipelago according to Louisa Ponnampalam (pers. comm. 2017, J.Y. Wang unpublished data)), year-round (but with seasonal influxes) in Hong Kong (Jefferson et al. 2002a), and in parts of the western Taiwan Strait (J.Y. Wang unpub. data). They are also present along the East Kalimantan coastline of Borneo (D. Kreb pers. comm. 2011). In India, they are found in shallow waters along virtually the entire length of both the east and the west coasts, with sightings and strandings more commonly reported on the west coast (Sule et al. 2017). One possible explanation for the difference is that the east coast has only pockets of preferred habitat, while more continuous or contiguous porpoise habitat is available along the west coast (Sule et al. 2017).

Given the paucity of dedicated cetacean survey effort in much of the species’ suspected range, the map includes the possible or projected range where oceanic features are consistent with the species’ known preferred habitat. As such, the species has not been recorded for all the states within the hypothetical range as shown on the map. States for which confirmed records of the species exist are marked as 'Resident' in the list of countries of occurrence. States within the hypothetical range, but for which no confirmed records exist, are included in the list as 'Seasonal Occurrence Uncertain'.

Countries occurrence:
Bahrain; Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; Cambodia; China; Hong Kong; India; Indonesia; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Iraq; Kuwait; Malaysia; Myanmar; Pakistan; Qatar; Saudi Arabia; Singapore; Sri Lanka; Taiwan, Province of China; Thailand; United Arab Emirates; Viet Nam
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Indian Ocean – western; Indian Ocean – eastern; Pacific – northwest; Pacific – western central
Additional data:
Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):NoEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):UnknownExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Lower depth limit (metres):50
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]


Finless Porpoises are small and cryptic and therefore difficult to survey. Estimates of abundance have been made for only a few areas (Jefferson and Hung 2004, IWC 2006), mostly in regions where the Narrow-ridged species (N. asiaeorientalis) dominates, if not exists solely. Numbers of Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises in Hong Kong and adjacent waters were estimated to be at least 217 (coefficient of variation (CV) 21-150%) (Jefferson et al. 2002a).

A vessel line-transect estimate of Finless Porpoises in Kuching Bay, Sarawak, Malaysia was 135 individuals (CV 31%, 95% confidence interval 74-246) (Minton et al. 2013). This represents a relatively small part of the species’ overall range (known or predicted) in western Borneo; there are no published abundance estimates for nearby areas (IWC 2017). A preliminary estimate of >1,000 from vessel line-transect surveys is available from the Langkawi Archipelago, Peninsular Malaysia (L. Ponnampalam, pers. comm., August 2017).

An estimate for a large area in the coastal waters of Bangladesh was 1,382 (CV 55%) but the density was very low compared to some of the reported densities of Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises in Japanese waters (Smith et al. 2008).
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Continuing decline of mature individuals:Yes
Extreme fluctuations:NoPopulation severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises are found mainly in coastal waters, including shallow bays, mangrove swamps, and estuaries. They occur in waters < 200 m deep and can be sighted up to 240 km from shore in some areas. It is uncertain which of the two currently recognized species of Finless Porpoises (possibly both) occurs farther offshore, especially in areas of sympatry.

Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoises appear to have a strong preference for waters with a sandy or soft bottom (Jefferson and Hung 2004).

Small fishes, cephalopods, and crustaceans (mainly demersal species) form the diet of Finless Porpoises (Jefferson and Hung 2004).

Higher numbers of Finless Porpoises are present in Hong Kong waters in winter and spring than in other seasons (Jefferson et al. 2002). Seasonal differences in density and distribution, with higher densities in the winter months of November to January, have been observed along the coast of southern Maharashtra, India, and acoustic monitoring data from there have been interpreted to suggest both seasonal and diurnal patterns of occurrence in near-shore waters (Sule et al. 2017). Minton et al. (2013) also observed a seasonal signal in their vessel surveys in Kuching Bay, with higher densities of Finless Porpoises observed in March, April, and May, which coincided with the occurrence of larger groups containing very small calves. Observations of porpoise behaviour in the bay were interpreted as suggesting that it is an important feeding and calving area (Zulkifli Poh 2013). Two stranded individuals had large shrimp in their stomachs (G. Minton, pers. comm., cited in IWC 2017).
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Yes
Generation Length (years):16
Movement patterns:Not a Migrant

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: There is no known trade in the taxon.

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s):

Finless Porpoises, like other phocoenids (Jefferson and Curry 1994), are extremely susceptible to entanglement in gillnets, and large numbers have been, and continue to be, killed in many parts of their range (Jefferson et al. 2002b). Finless Porpoises are caught in nets in Iranian, Indian, Pakistani and Malaysian coastal waters, although there are no good estimates of the magnitude of such catches (e.g., see Collins et al. 2005, Jaaman et al. 2009, Braulik et al. 2010). In East Malaysia, Finless Porpoises are caught as bycatch in ‘fish stakes’ in Sabah (Jaaman et al. 2009) and one individual was found entangled in the line of a crab trap in Sarawak (G. Minton pers. comm. 2011), where cetacean bycatch is prevalent (Peter et al. 2016, IWC 2017). Yang et al. (1999) reported that Finless Porpoises were the most frequently captured cetaceans in fishing gear along the Chinese coast and estimated that more than 2,000 were taken in 1994, mainly in trawl, gill, and stow nets. In the Taiwan Strait (where the two species of Finless Porpoises are sympatric), a considerable number of both species are taken in trammel nets, trawl nets, stow nets, and other gear (J. Y. Wang unpublished data). In Hong Kong waters, porpoises are caught regularly by trawl nets and gillnets, but there are no estimates of bycatch levels (Parsons and Jefferson 2000, Jefferson et al. 2002b). Given the numbers and types of net fisheries in Chinese coastal waters, the apparently high bycatch of Finless Porpoises (Zhou and Wang 1994, Yang et al. 1999) is a serious concern. In Maharashtra, India, during 2014-2016, at least twenty Finless Porpoise carcasses washed ashore, a few of them known to have drowned in shore seine nets and gillnets (M. Sule, pers. comm.).

As a coastal species, the Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise is also affected by habitat loss and degradation, boat traffic, and pollution. The extensive modification of coastlines for shrimp farming, causeways, and harbour (and other) development throughout Asia (including the Persian/Arabian Gulf) means that there is less habitat for Finless Porpoises (Reeves et al. 2003, Braulik et al. 2010). Although pathology related to contaminant exposure has not been reported in Finless Porpoises, pollution is considered a potentially serious threat (Kasuya 1999, Iwata et al. 1994, Parsons and Chan 1998, Minh et al. 1999, Parsons 1999, Jefferson et al. 2002b, Ramu et al. 2005). The number of reported Finless Porpoise strandings in Hong Kong has increased in recent years, partly due to increasing public awareness and reporting of local cetaceans, but also possibly due to escalating levels of human impacts (T.A. Jefferson pers. comm. 2017). In the Persian/Arabian Gulf, chemicals from recent wars exacerbate total pollution loads in coastal waters from the usual sources such as industry, agriculture and households (Braulik et al. 2010). Vessel collisions, especially involving high-speed ferries, may be a particular problem for porpoises in Hong Kong (Parsons and Jefferson 2000).

The following summary of examples illustrates the problems faced by this species:

In Chinese waters (excluding the considerable fisheries operating in Taiwanese waters), more than 3.5 million gillnets were estimated to be in use in the early 1990s (Zhou and Wang 1994). In India, the use of gillnets reportedly had increased from about 18,000 in 1950 to more than 216,000 by 1980 and gillnets were also being used extensively in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar (Mohan 1994). Since the time of those reports, gillnetting effort certainly would have increased considerably in these and other regions because there are few (if any) restrictions on this kind of fishing gear anywhere in the range of the species. Porpoise habitat in Myanmar is heavily fished with gillnets and other types of gear capable of taking small cetaceans incidentally (Smith and Than Tun 2008). A drift gillnet fishery for elasmobranchs is of concern in the Bangladesh Sundarbans (Smith et al. 2008). In East Malaysia, Finless Porpoise numbers are thought to have ‘greatly declined’ due to bycatch in fisheries (Jaaman et al. 2009), and commercial fishing (gillnetting, trawling, purse-seining) is intensive off Peninsular Malaysia where bycatch of Finless Porpoises is known to occur even though it is not monitored regularly (L. Ponnampalam pers. comm. August 2017). Surveys in the coastal waters of Vietnam have resulted in very few sightings of cetaceans. In a study by Smith et al. (1997), no sightings were made of Finless Porpoises yet local whale temples contained many skulls of them as well as other cetacean species. A survey around Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam, in 2015 found evidence of Finless Porpoises being bycaught in trawl nets (L. Ponnampalam, pers. comm., August 2017). The impacts of war in the 1960s and 1970s, compounded by intense fishing (especially the use of gillnets) in recent years and ongoing, are likely at least partly responsible for the near absence of cetaceans from these waters. In Iran (Persian/Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman/Sea of Oman), bycatch in fisheries appears to be the greatest threat to marine mammals and removals from apparently small, localized populations of Finless Porpoises may be unsustainable (Braulik et al. 2010). Two major marine mammal die-offs occurred in the Persian/Arabian Gulf in the 1980s and 1990s, possibly related to major oil spills (Collins et al. 2005). Finless Porpoise sightings in Pakistan’s Indus Delta region were apparently decreasing in the 1970s (Pilleri and Gihr 1972, Pilleri and Pilleri 1979) and by the 1990s the species had nearly disappeared from this badly degraded area (see Reeves et al. 1997).

The Indo-Pacific Finless Porpoise is one of several cetacean species that have greatly declined or disappeared from large parts of their range in Thailand, largely as a result of coastal habitat degradation and fishery bycatch (IWC 1994).

No large-scale direct hunting of this species is known to occur. In some parts of their range, people apparently are averse to eating Finless Porpoises (Kasuya 1999, J. Y. Wang unpublished data) but in other areas they are consumed. Direct killing or capture of Finless Porpoises appears to be relatively rare (Reeves et al. 1997) but development of intentional fisheries for marine mammals from incidental captures (and economic benefits from subsequent consumption and marketing) may have increased in parts of Southeast Asia as preferred marine resources have been over-fished (see Perrin 2002).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions:

This species (which is presently listed as a single species with N. asiaeorientalis) is included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Management measures are needed to address threats, especially bycatch in fisheries.

At its annual meeting in May 2017 the IWC Scientific Committee’s sub-committee on small cetaceans reviewed the status of Finless Porpoises in India and parts of Malaysia and recommended that populations be surveyed for distribution, abundance, and habitat use with emphasis on areas where the least is known about the species (e.g., India, the Indo-Malay Archipelago, Arabian/Persian Gulf) (IWC 2017). The sub-committee also recommended that bycatch monitoring be improved in all areas of known overlap between Finless Porpoise occurrence and fishing activity, especially gillnetting.

Citation: Wang, J.Y. , Reeves, R. 2017. Neophocaena phocaenoides. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T198920A50386795. . Downloaded on 12 December 2017.
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