German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN)


Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS)

Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)
© Ute Grimm
Three bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in water, © Ute Grimm

The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS) entered into force on 29 March 1994. In February 2008, an extension of the agreement area came into force which changed the name to "Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Altantic, Irish and North Seas". Twenty small cetacean species are found in the agreement area. The ten parties (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom; Fig. 96) have agreed to achieve and maintain a favourable conservation status for small cetaceans. The Conservation and Management Plan annexed to the Agreement sets out specific measures to this end.

Agreement area and parties to ASCOBANS
List of parties
Agreement area and parties to ASCOBANS shown on a map of Europe; see also separate list of parties

The most pressing problems in protecting small cetaceans involve incidental bycatch in fisheries, marine pollution, acoustic disturbances in the species’ surroundings from shipping, drilling and detonations, and direct negative impacts for example from speed boats. There is therefore a need for coordinated solutions at international level and for further research to improve methods used both in estimating populations and investigating population dynamics and migrations. Further research is also needed on the impacts of different types of disturbances and on interactions between different impacts. Data collection on these issues is a key part of the obligations set out in the Conservation and Management Plan. From a German perspective, priority tasks under the Agreement include analysing migratory movements in the North and Baltic Seas, adopting internationally coordinated measures to prevent bycatch of small cetaceans in fisheries, and activities to monitor the effects of such measures.

Schleswig-Holstein Wadden Sea National Park:
Cetacean conservation and zero use area

Three small cetacean species are regularly found in German coastal waters. The commonest is the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). The bottle-nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) reared its young in the German North Sea until 15 years ago but is now only a visitor to the area. White-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) occasionally move into the central North Sea. The area off the shores of Sylt and Amrum is an important rearing area for North Sea harbour porpoise. In recognition of this, Schleswig-Holstein’s national park legislation has been amended to allow the establishment of a small cetacean protection area that stretches up to the 12-mile line and provides the basis for more far-reaching protection measures that have yet to be implemented

Baltic Sea harbour porpoise have been identified as separate populations at special risk. In response to their threatened status, a special recovery plan for Baltic harbour porpoises (known as the (Jastarnia Plan) was adopted by the parties to ASCOBANS in 2002 and revised in 2009 (Jastarnia Plan - 2009 Revision). The aim of the plan is to restore the population to 80 percent of the Baltic Sea ecosystem’s carrying capacity. This can only be achieved if bycatch in Baltic Sea fisheries is reduced to a maximum of two harbour porpoise per year and if additional conservation measures are successful.

The bycatch problem with harbour porpoises

Out of an estimated population of 170,000 harbour porpoise in the central and southern North Sea, at least 4,500 specimens (2.6 percent) are killed each year as bycatch; based on conservative estimates, the corresponding figure for the 36,000-strong population in the Celtic Sea between Ireland and southern England is 2,200 (6.1 percent). These estimates – methodologically speaking they represent minimum figures – are sufficient to support calls for immediate action, as it may be generally assumed that bycatch rates exceeding two percent of the estimated total threaten the survival of a cetacean population. Where exact population and bycatch data are available for porpoise, a threshold of 1.7 percent is applied. As no such exact data are available, the precautionary principle dictates that bycatch must be reduced below this threshold.


8th Meeting of the Parties 30.08.-01.09.16 in Helsinki

Useful Links

Office website of ASCOBANS

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)
Official website of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)

Habitat Mare Natura 2000
BfN website on conservation in the North Sea and Baltic Sea

Global Register of Migratory Species


Jastarnia Plan
Recovery plan for Baltic harbour porpoise

Jastarnia Plan (2009 Revision)

North Sea Plan

Western Baltic Plan

Last Change: 16/09/2020