Royal Society Open Science (2018)

DOI: 10.1098/rsos.180537


Determining management units for natural populations is critical for effective conservation and management. However, collecting the requisite tissue samples for population genetic analyses remains the primary limiting factor for a number of marine species. The harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), one of the smallest cetaceans in the Northern Hemisphere, is a primary example. These elusive, highly mobile small animals confound traditional approaches of collecting tissue samples for genetic analyses, yet their nearshore habitat makes them highly vulnerable to fisheries by-catch and the effects of habitat degradation. By exploiting the naturally shed cellular material in seawater and the power of next-generation sequencing, we develop a novel approach for generating population-specific mitochondrial sequence data from environmental DNA (eDNA) using surface seawater samples. Indications of significant genetic differentiation within a currently recognized management stock highlights the need for dedicated eDNA sampling throughout the population’s range in southeast Alaska. This indirect sampling tactic for characterizing stock structure of small and endangered marine mammals has the potential to revolutionize population assessment for otherwise inaccessible marine taxa.