Knowing the abundance of a population is a crucial component to assess its conservation status and develop effective conservation plans. For most cetaceans, abundance estimation is difficult given their cryptic and mobile nature, especially when the population is small and has a transnational distribution. In the Baltic Sea, the number of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) has collapsed since the mid-20th century and the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN; however, its abundance remains unknown. Here, one of the largest ever passive acoustic monitoring studies was carried out by eight Baltic Sea nations to estimate the abundance of the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise for the first time. By logging porpoise echolocation signals at 298 stations during May 2011-April 2013, calibrating the loggers’ spatial detection performance at sea, and measuring the click rate of tagged individuals, we estimated an abundance of 66-1,143 individuals (95% CI, point estimate 490) during May-October within the population’s proposed management border. The small abundance estimate strongly supports that the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise is facing an extremely high risk of extinction, and highlights the need for immediate and efficient conservation actions through international cooperation. It also provides a starting point in monitoring the trend of the population abundance to evaluate the effectiveness of management measures and determine its interactions with the larger neighbouring Belt Sea population. Further, we offer evidence that design-based passive acoustic monitoring can generate reliable estimates of the abundance of rare and cryptic animal populations across large spatial scales.
1. Quantifying consumption and prey choice for marine predator species is key to understanding their interaction with prey species, fisheries, and the ecosystem as a whole. However, parameterising a functional response for large predators can be challenging because of the difficulty in obtaining the required datasets on predator diet and the availability of multiple prey species. 2. This study modelled a Multi-Species Functional Response (MSFR) to describe the relationship between consumption by harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and the availability of multiple prey species in the southern North Sea. Bayesian methodology was employed to estimate MSFR parameters and to incorporate uncertainties in diet and prey availability estimates. Prey consumption was estimated from stomach contents data of stranded harbour porpoises. Prey availability to harbour porpoises was estimated based on the spatial overlap between prey distributions, estimated from fish survey data, and porpoise foraging range in the days prior to stranding predicted from telemetry data. 3. Results indicated a strong preference for sandeel in the study area. Prey switching behaviour (change in preference dependent on prey abundance) was confirmed by the favoured Type III functional response model. Variation in the size of the foraging range (estimated area where harbour porpoises could have foraged prior to stranding) did not alter the overall pattern of the results or conclusions. 4. Integrating datasets on prey consumption from strandings, predator foraging distribution using telemetry and prey availability from fish surveys into the modelling approach provides a methodological framework that may be appropriate for fitting MSFRs for other predators.