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Tackling entanglement in fishing gear in European waters

Thousands of dolphins and porpoises die in fishing gear each year in the waters around Europe. WDC is pressing the EU to do more to tackle the problem.

Types of fishing gear involved in whale and dolphin entanglement.
Whales and dolphins get entangled in different types of fishing gear.

Common dolphins in the English Channel

Entanglement in fishing gear, or ‘bycatch’, has been a major threat to the survival of the common dolphin population in the English Channel for many years.

Intensive trawling means that huge numbers of dolphins are dying in nets in this region. Static gillnet fisheries are also taking a toll – these are nets that are anchored to the seabed and which hang in the water like a wall.

During the winter fishing season, large numbers of dolphins have been washing up dead on beaches in south west England, France and increasingly in Ireland. The bodies of many of them show the tell-tale signs of having died in a fishing net. In early 2017 more than a hundred dolphins washed ashore on the south west English coast with marks that indicated bycatch as a cause of death.

During the winters of 2004 and 2005, WDC (WDCS, as we were then) and Greenpeace carried out a survey in the English Channel to find out more about the whales, dolphins and porpoises who make their homes in these waters and to understand more about bycatch in the region. Until then, the common dolphins had been little–studied.

More recently, scientific studies have shown how alarmingly high the bycatch of common dolphins has been, for decades. This research also shows us how important it is to examine the bodies of those dolphins who wash ashore and then analyse this data to give us a better picture of the worrying scale of the bycatch situation.

You can read the full WDC report on bycatch in the whole north-east Atlantic region and an update to this review: “The Price of Fish”.

Other fishing gear involved in bycatch in European waters
Other types of fishing gear involved in whale and dolphin bycatch in European waters.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are caught in nets and entangled in fishing gear in large numbers in EU waters. Yet, relatively few EU fisheries have been subject to thorough or routine observer monitoring.

In 2004, after several years of negotiations, the European Community adopted a new regulation to address the problem of bycatch. EU Regulation 812/2004 is limited in its scope and provisions, but did represent important progress. It requires all European Community vessels of 12 metres or longer, fishing in specified drift, gill and tangle net fisheries to trial the use of pingers (acoustic alarms that warn porpoises away from the nets) on these nets. It also requires Member States to introduce observer schemes to monitor whale and dolphin bycatch in certain fisheries, most notably in pelagic trawls, and the phase out of driftnet fisheries in the Baltic Sea.

The bycatch measures we have under the EU are far from perfect, but they have added to our knowledge of the extent of the problem in certain fleets in the last decade or so. In some cases they’ve led to changes being introduced to reduce deaths of some species in some types of fishing gear - like using pingers to reduce porpoise bycatch. However, pingers can have disturbance impacts that are beginning to be understood so other mitigation tools are also required.

Regulation 812/2004 is currently under review and we’ve been working with colleagues in European organisations to try to ensure that future fisheries regulations within Europe are better and fit for purpose.

Future fishing rules in European waters, like elsewhere in the world, need to include transparent management and better measures to reduce and eliminate bycatch - for all countries, whether or not they are part of the EU.


Common dolphin
Common dolphin

What is the EU doing?

Governments are under international obligations to address the bycatch problems affecting whales, dolphins and porpoises. The EU Habitats Directive gives an obligation to monitor the accidental capture or killing of all whales and dolphins and to ensure that accidental capture and killing does not have a significant negative conservation impact on the species concerned.

Another EU agreement, The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS) requires in Resolution 8.5 that Member States aim to eliminate whale and dolphin bycatch.

Despite these top level measures, bycatch remains a major conservation and welfare concern in European waters, with high numbers of harbour porpoises, dolphins and whales dying a horrible death every year.

Join our campaign. We are asking the EU to:

  • Improve the monitoring on board fishing vessels so we get better data.
  • Require that fisheries demonstrate that bycatch levels are decreasing over time.
  • Develop an EU Bycatch Action Plan to identify in detail the steps required to reduce whale, dolphin and porpoise bycatch in European waters.