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Did you know the International Whaling Commission is tackling dolphin deaths in nets?

If you are aware of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) then you probably know it as the body that regulates whale hunts. What you may not be aware of is that the IWC has a sub-group called the IWC Scientific Committee (IWC SC). Many of the world’s leading whale and dolphin scientists sit on this committee and the group doesn’t just deal with whaling-related issues.

In recent years, IWC SC has become the world’s foremost scientific whale and dolphin conservation and welfare forum and these eminent scientists advise on a whole range of pressures faced by whales and dolphins. One important issue that the IWC SC deals with is the accidental capture or entanglement of whales and dolphins in fishing gear (bycatch)

Our team has played various roles in the IWC SC over the years and when the IWC SC met earlier this month, we presented papers on whale and dolphin entanglement in fishing gear (bycatch). If you want to dive deeper, you can read the report of this meeting.

In this blog, I'll explore the key take-home messages with you.

Short-beaked common dolphin
Fishing nets threaten the survival of the common dolphin population in Bay of Biscay

We must tackle the EU common dolphin crisis

Common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay are dying in fishing nets at such a horrendous rate that the survival of the population is threatened. Common dolphins are strictly protected under EU law, yet last winter the number of dolphins washed-up dead with signs of entanglement on their bodies was the worst ever recorded. More than 1,200 dolphins washed up in France, more in Spain and the real number dead is likely to be much higher.  We need to get a grip on this situation urgently and a step towards this will be to make sure fishing vessels are monitored and measures to tackle bycatch are implemented. The IWC SC recommended a range of measures to ensure compulsory monitoring across all the fleets in the Bay of Biscay as well as real-time requirements for fishing ships to ‘move on’ should they accidentally catch a dolphin. It is vital that these are implemented by European Member States ahead of the next winter fishing season or temporary closures of fisheries in certain areas will be unavoidable.

This problem has been going on for decades in the wider region and common dolphins are caught all year round in lower numbers, and so measures are required throughout the English Channel and Celtic Sea, as well as in the Bay of Biscay and Galicia.

Harbour porpoise
Harbour porpoise

We need to prevent porpoise extinction

Harbour porpoises in the Central Baltic are Critically Endangered because of bycatch - there are only about 500 individuals left in this population and they face extinction unless urgent action is taken. The IWC SC reiterated its previous serious concern about the status of the population and agreed that listing this harbour porpoise population in what’s known as ‘Appendix I of the Convention for Migratory Species’ will greatly assist conservation efforts (Appendix I is essentially a list of endangered species that governments and conservation managers refer to when making decisions about conservation priorities and species or population protection). Such a move would increase the urgency for governments to do more to try to save this declining population.

New Zealand dolphins are on the verge of extinction - join our campaign

We’re facing a New Zealand dolphin extinction emergency

If you’ve been following our campaign, you’ll know that New Zealand dolphins face an extinction emergency. The IWC SC echoed our call for the closure of any fisheries within the range of Māui dolphins that are known to pose a risk to dolphins (i.e. set net and trawl fisheries). This strong support from the scientific community adds important international pressure to encourage the New Zealand government to act before it is too late and Māui dolphins are gone forever.

Spinner dolphins © Rob Lott/WDC
We're working hard to prevent dolphin deaths in nets in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea

We need to protect dolphins in the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea

High numbers of dolphins in this region, like in all other regions, are bycaught in set and drifting gillnets. In May, I participated in a workshop in Nairobi to identify the huge data gaps and to investigate opportunities for reducing the number of dolphins dying.  Bycatch is very poorly documented here, and we made recommendations to identify hotspot areas and implement effective management measures as a priority. The IWC Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (of which I’m a member) will focus on bycatch reduction in small to medium scale gillnet fisheries in the region.

We need action now

Bycatch is the single-biggest killer of whales, dolphins and porpoises and yet efforts by governments to really do something about it are woefully inadequate.  Scientists, conservationists, welfare specialists and individuals like you are all saying the same thing - we need to step up and take the threat of bycatch seriously. Together our voice is stronger and we will use the recommendations of the IWC SC at every opportunity to lobby for better efforts by national governments to stop whales, dolphins and porpoises dying in fishing nets and gear all over the world.

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