Neophocaena asiaeorientalis


Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family

Scientific Name: Neophocaena asiaeorientalis
Species Authority: (Pilleri & Gihr, 1972)
Infra-specific Taxa Assessed:
Common Name(s):
English Finless Porpoise, Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoise
French Marsouin Aptère
Spanish Marsopa Lisa
Neophocaena phocaenoides (G. Cuvier, 1829)
Neophocaena phocaenoides subspecies asiaeorientalis (Pilleri & Gihr, 1972)
Neophocaena phocaenoides subspecies sunameri Pilleri & Gihr, 1975
Taxonomic Notes:

The recognition of two externally distinct morphological forms of Finless Porpoises as separate biological species (Neophocaena phocaenoides and N. asiaeorientalis) was accepted 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 are sympatric in a fairly large area of East Asia (Wang et al. 2008). Differences in the external morphology of the dorsal aspect of the two species are distinguishable even amongst free-ranging animals (Wang et al. 2010) and intermediate animals have never been reported even though several hundred to thousands of carcasses have been examined. The two species also clearly differ in craniometry (Amano et al. 1992, Jefferson 2002). Within the Narrow-ridged species, two subspecies are retained: the Yangtze Finless Porpoise, N. a. asiaeorientalis, and the East Asian Finless Porpoise or Sunameri, N. a. sunameri (Gao 1991; Wang 1992a,b; Gao and Zhou 1995). Where Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises have been studied fairly well (e.g. Yoshida et al. 1995, 2001; Yoshida 2002; Jefferson 2002), there is evidence to suggest subpopulation structure.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Vulnerable A2cde ver 3.1
Year Published: 2012
Date Assessed: 2011-03-01
Assessor(s): Wang, J.Y. & Reeves, R.
Reviewer(s): Taylor, B.L. & Hammond, P.S.

Although the data are far from sufficient to make a rigorous quantitative assessment of population trend for N. asiaeorientalis throughout its range, 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 50 years, see Taylor et al. 2007). The factor most responsible for such a decline would be incidental mortality in fisheries, but the loss and degradation of habitat (including chemical pollution) and vessel strikes (at least in the Yangtze River system; Turvey et al. submitted) are likely contributing factors as well. As the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission concluded after a review of the species (both N. phocaenoides and N. asiaeorientalis) in 2005 (IWC 2006), “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.” None of the threats has been seriously addressed in any part of the species’ range, even though threat levels are likely increasing.

Partly because of their small size, phocoenids are exceptionally vulnerable to incidental mortality in gillnets (e.g. Jefferson and Curry 1994). Incidental mortality in fishing gear is either known or presumed to occur throughout the range of Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises (Reeves et al. 1997, IWC 2006).

There is clear evidence of a declining trend in two major parts of this species’ range. In the Inland Sea of Japan, a decline of nearly 70% was estimated over a period of 22 years, from 1976-1978 to 1999-2000 (Kasuya et al. 2002). There is also evidence of a rapid decline in recent decades in the Yangtze River and adjoining lake systems of China (Zhao et al. 2008, Wang 2009); the subspecies there (N. a. asiaeorientalis), which was classified as Endangered in 1996 under the IUCN 1994 Red List Categories and Criteria, is currently being reassessed to determine whether it should be uplisted to Critically Endangered.

Therefore, as is true of the other species of finless porpoise (N. phocaenoides), the Narrow-ridged species qualifies for Vulnerable A2cde, considering that the causes of the suspected/inferred decline in population size--bycatch and mortality from vessel strikes (both interpreted here as “exploitation”), decline in habitat quality, and possibly pollution--have not ceased and are not well understood.

There should be sufficient information for separate assessment of at least two threatened subpopulations or subspecies – the subpopulation in the Inland Sea of Japan, which likely qualifies for Endangered (Shirakihara et al. 2007), and the Yangtze River subspecies for which a new assessment is underway.
2011 Vulnerable

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:The type specimen was from the Yangtze River, Kiangsu [=Jiangsu] Province, China, ~129 km (=80 miles) northwest of Shanghai (Pilleri and Gihr 1972).

In general, the species occurs in a narrow strip of shallow (usually <50 m deep) coastal water around the western Pacific Ocean from the Taiwan Strait to the waters of northern China, Korea and northern Honshu, Japan. (Note that a Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoise was discovered recently in the waters of Okinawa Island, Japan (Yoshida et al. 2010), but it probably represents an extralimital stray rather than an extension of the species’ range.) The distribution also includes a few estuaries and rivers (e.g., the N. a. asiaeorientalis subspecies appears to be found exclusively in the Yangtze River system; Gao 1991, Gao and Zhou 1995). Human coastal development and other activities already may have substantially reduced and fragmented the distribution of Finless Porpoises (Reeves et al. 1997).

N. a. sunameri – Coastal waters from the Taiwan Strait, including the western coast of Taiwan (mainly the Matsu and Chinmen Islands), through the East China Sea north to the Bohai/Yellow Sea in China and the waters of Korea and Japan (Gao 1991, Gao and Zhou 1995). Korean and Japanese populations are geographically separate (Shirakihara et al. 1992, Yoshida et al. 2001, Yoshida 2002).

N. a. asiaeorientalis – Middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River (= Chang Jiang), where it ranges (or did until recently) to 1,600 km upstream, i.e., to the gorges above Yichang (200 m above sea level). The range includes Poyang and Dongting lakes and their tributaries, the Gan Jiang and the Xiang Jiang (Gao 1991, Gao and Zhou 1995). The subspecies is thought to be restricted to fresh water.

The map shows where the species may occur based on oceanography. 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 included in the list of native range states. States within the hypothetical range but for which no confirmed records exist are included in the Presence Uncertain list.
China; Japan; Korea, Republic of; Taiwan, Province of China
FAO Marine Fishing Areas:
Pacific – northwest
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]

Population: These porpoises are small and cryptic and therefore difficult to survey. Estimates of abundance have been made for only a few areas (IWC 2006). Estimates from the early 2000s are available for five subpopulations in Japanese waters, distinguished on the basis of skull morphology and mtDNA variability (Yoshida et al. 1995, Yoshida 2002), as follows: 3,807 (CV=16%) in Ariake Sound/Tachibana Bay (Shirakihara and Shirakihara 2002); 289 (CV=19%) in Omura Bay (Shirakihara and Shirakihara 2002); 3,743 (CV=24%) in Ise/Mikawa Bay (Yoshida 2002); 3,387 (CV=33%) in Chiba/Sendai Bay (Amano et al. 2003); and 7,572 (CV=17%) in the Inland Sea (Shirakihara et al. 2007). Most of the estimates were summarized in IWC (2006). For the Inland Sea subpopulation, Kasuya et al. (2002) recorded a decline in sighting rate of 18–100% for 18 tracklines surveyed in 1976–78 and again in 1999–2000. The declines for 11 of these tracklines were statistically significant. Using abundance indices calculated by multiplying the density indices (no. individuals/cruise distance) and area size of each stratum, an overall decline of 69% is inferred over the 22 years between the two sets of surveys (T. Kasuya pers. comm. 2007, data from Kasuya et al. 2002).

Surveys in western Korean waters (Yellow Sea) in the early 2000s estimated 21,532 (CV=39%) finless porpoises in offshore waters and 5,464 (CV=20%) in inshore waters (Zhang et al. 2005). The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) considered these estimates to be negatively biased (IWC 2006, p. 223).

Based on surveys from 1984 to 1991, Zhang et al. (1993) estimated that there were about 2,700 porpoises in the Yangtze River, while Zhou et al. (2000) estimated that only 700 remained in the lower reaches between Nanjing and Hukou between 1989 and 1992. Wang et al. (2000) concluded that finless porpoise abundance in the Yangtze River had declined considerably and that there could be fewer than 2,000 animals (although this was not based on a rigorous assessment). A two-vessel survey of the Yangtze mainstem in 2006 yielded an estimate of 1,225 (CV 0.13) which, when combined with earlier estimates for Poyang and Dongting Lakes, was interpreted as implying an overall number of about 1,800 in the Yangtze system (Zhao et al. 2008). In some portions of the river where porpoises had been reported to be present in the past, none were seen during the 2006 survey. Estimates of the annual rate of decline of Yangtze finless porpoises have varied from 5 to 7.3% (see Wang 2009 for a review).

There are no abundance estimates for finless porpoises in Chinese marine waters other than Hong Kong (IWC 2006), which would be for N. phocaenoides and not N. asiaeorientalis.
Population Trend: Decreasing

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises are found mainly in coastal waters, including shallow bays, possibly mangrove swamps, estuaries, and some large rivers. However, they can also occur in shallow waters (<200 m deep) quite far from shore (up to 240 km). They appear to have a strong preference for waters with a sandy or soft bottom (Jefferson and Hung 2004).

In Japanese waters, finless porpoises prefer shallow depths (<50 m) and close proximity to the shore (<5 km). In the shallow East China Sea, proximity to the shore does not appear to be as important (Amano 2002).

Small fishes, cephalopods, and crustaceans (mainly demersal species) form the diet of finless porpoises (see Jefferson and Hung 2004).

Systems: Freshwater; Marine

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade: There does not appear to be trade (for consumption) in most areas of China and Japan. However, Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises are sold and consumed fairly widely in certain fishing ports/markets in South Korea (e.g., Busan, Ulsan). A limited number of Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises are sold by fishermen to local display/entertainment institutions.

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. In Japan Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises become entangled in a variety of types of fishing gear. Changes in fishing methods may have reduced the incidental catch in some areas such as western Kyushu (Kasuya 1999), but substantial numbers are still being taken in gill nets and other fishing gear. A total of 114 specimens were collected in Japan during 1985–1992 from western and north-eastern Kyushu including parts of the western Inland Sea (Shirakihara et al. 1993): 84 of them had been killed incidentally in fisheries, 25 had been found dead on the beach or in the sea, and there was no information on the other five. Fishing gears that killed the 84 porpoises were bottom-set gill nets (58), surface gill nets (17), trap nets (7), trawl nets (1) and drifting (ghost) nets (1). Such fishing gears aree common in Japan and probably kill finless porpoises off other coasts, although usually such catches go unreported. 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 waters of western Taiwan, including the Matsu and Chinmen Islands (western Taiwan Strait), a considerable number of finless porpoises are taken in trammel nets, trawl nets, stow nets, and other gear (J.Y. Wang unpublished). Given the numbers and types of net fisheries in Chinese coastal waters (e.g. Zhou and Wang 1994, Yang et al. 1999), there are serious concerns about the level of bycatch of both finless porpoise species. Although illegal, electric fishing became widespread in the Yangtze River during the 1990s, and it probably kills porpoises outright and contributes to the depletion of their prey (Reeves et al. 2000).

In some parts of their range, there is an aversion to eating finless porpoises (Kasuya 1999, J.Y. Wang unpublished). However, there is a long history of porpoises taken incidentally being sold for human consumption in at least parts of Japan (e.g., Mizue et al. 1965) and on the Korean peninsula (IWC 2000). From an analysis of the species composition of odontocete products in Korean markets during 2003–2004, it was estimated that the true catch of finless porpoises in Korean waters during this period was probably about four times the officially reported catch of 142 animals (Baker et al. 2006).

As coastal and riverine animals, Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises are also affected by habitat loss and degradation, boat traffic, and pollution. The extensive modification of coastlines for shrimp farming and rampant harbor (and other) development throughout East Asia means that there is less habitat for finless porpoises (Reeves et al. 2003). Porpoise habitat in the Yangtze River system has been degraded by water development, including the Gezhouba and Three Gorges dams and about 1300 smaller dams in tributaries (Liu et al. 2000, Smith et al. 2000). Sand mining is intensive in Poyang Lake, until recently a stronghold for Yangtze finless porpoises (Zhao et al. 2008). Although pathology related to contaminant exposure has not been reported in Narrow-ridged Finless Porpoises, pollution is considered a potentially serious threat (Kasuya 1999; see Kannan et al. 1989; Iwata et al. 1994, 1995; Le et al. 1999; Zhao et al. 2008).

A recent survey of levels and drivers of human-caused mortality carried out in 27 fishing settlements along the middle-lower Yangtze channel identified three main categories of observed porpoise deaths: (1) interaction with fishing gear, (2) vessel strikes, and (3) unknown cause (S.T. Turvey pers. comm. 2011). A total of 344 dated porpoise mortality events directly observed by informants between 1950 and 2008 were reported, including 75 porpoise deaths from 1989–1998 and 147 from 1999–2008. This change was driven by the greater number of deaths attributed to vessel strikes (19 to 35) and unknown causes (31 to 94) in the more recent decade. Comparison of the reported mortality with the estimated abundance suggests that the fraction of individuals removed from the declining porpoise population in the Yangtze has quadrupled over the course of two decades. Turvey concluded that entanglement in rolling hook long-lines is probably responsible for the greatest number of porpoise deaths in fishing gear and that vessel strikes and other anthropogenic factors, such as electrofishing, are likely now the dominant and increasing causes of mortality in the Yangtze.

The causes of an apparent decline in porpoise numbers in the Inland Sea of Japan are not fully understood but include incidental mortality in fisheries as well as various forms of habitat degradation (IWC 2000, 2006). Parts of the coastal regions of the Inland Sea are highly developed and industrialized so the associated threats of habitat loss and pollution are suspected to have had some (undetermined) level of impact

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Neophocaena phocaenoides (meant at the time of listing to include N. asiaeorientalis) is listed 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 reduce the threats, particularly incidental mortality in fisheries and vessel strikes, but also to protect (or if possible restore) the environmental conditions needed for these animals to survive and reproduce.

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Citation: Wang, J.Y. & Reeves, R. 2012. Neophocaena asiaeorientalis. In: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. <>. Downloaded on 05 September 2015.
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