After more than 1,000 common dolphins washed up dead on the French coast over the winter, scientists from France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and the UK have come together to call for action to reduce the numbers of dolphins dying in fishing gear (bycatch). We call on the European Commission to ensure urgent action to tackle unacceptable common dolphin bycatch is not delayed.
These experts are working under the umbrella of a group called ASCOBANS (Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas) which aims to protect dolphins, porpoises and small whales. The scientists are calling on member governments to adopt a Common Dolphin Action Plan.
The expert group reinforce the need for governments to work together as a priority to get accurate figures on current rates of dolphin deaths in nets, so that we can better understand the scale of the problem, and then put effective measures in place to reduce bycatch.
The Action Plan lays out a series of practical research, mitigation and monitoring actions aimed at improving the conservation status of the common dolphin.
The scientists quite rightly call out those countries, including the UK, which have allowed common dolphins to be continually caught in fishing gear in the North East Atlantic at high levels and for decades. Attention and cause for concern was brought to this issue back in the early 1990s by French and UK scientists and by us. More recently, regional experts have provided formal advice to the European Commission that the bycatch in fishing gear is likely having a population level effect on common dolphins. ASCOBANS has raised concerns about the high level of bycatch affecting this population of dolphins, and these concerns have been reiterated by the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee in 2019.
Just last month, WDC submitted a formal complaint, with the support of many European NGOs, to the European Commission, as well as an Emergency Measures briefing providing the evidence of ongoing common dolphin bycatch in the Bay of Biscay and calling for immediate action.
Common dolphins are caught in fishing nets throughout the Celtic Sea, English Channel and Bay of Biscay, all year round, but with a peak in winter months, and in a range of fishing gears such as pelagic trawl fisheries - pair trawls (where two fishing boats pull a big net between them) and other bottom trawlers - seiners and static gillnets.
Current bycatch measures at the EU level are woefully inadequate. Not enough data is collected by the range of countries fishing to know the true extent of the deaths, and although enough is known to understand that the situation is urgent, countries still do not do even what they are legally required to do. Common dolphin bycatch cannot be allowed to go on unattended.
Only a small percentage of the dolphins who meet a truly horrible death in fishing gear will wash ashore. So with the stranding of 1,000 common dolphins on the French coast this last winter, how many dolphins died at sea? Given the ‘unfavourable’ status of common dolphins in Europe, and the uncertainty about the number of common dolphin populations and the true extent of bycatch in this region, this issue requires decisive action by the European Commission and by Member States that fish within the habitat of Northeast Atlantic common dolphins.
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