Diseases of Aquatic Organisms (2017)

DOI: 10.3354/dao03080


There is increasing public interest in the overall health of the marine environment. Harbor porpoises Phocoena phocoena have a coastal distribution, and stranded animals function as sentinels for population and ecosystem health. The goal of this retrospective study was to join datasets from the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific coasts of Canada to investigate causes of morbidity and mortality in this species. A total of 241 necropsy records were reviewed including 147 (61%) from the Pacific region and 94 (39%) from the Atlantic region from 1988 to 2011. A cause of death could be determined with confidence in 118 (49%) of these cases. Of these 118 cases, the leading cause of mortality for both regions, together and separately, was infectious disease. In the Pacific region, this was followed by traumatic and anthropogenic causes, whereas in the Atlantic region, it was followed by emaciation/starvation, mortality of dependent calves, and anthropogenic causes. Pathogens of potential zoonotic significance or indicative of environmental contamination, e.g. Salmonella sp. and Cryptococcus gattii, were identified. Numerous parasitic species were observed within the lungs, liver, stomach, middle ear, and subcutaneous tissues, although they were usually interpreted as incidental findings. Anthropogenic causes may be underrepresented as they are notoriously difficult to diagnose with certainty, thereby making up a proportion of the ‘unknown causes of death’ (51%) category. Improved standardization of data collection and documentation is required to better understand harbor porpoise and ecosystem health.