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Common dolphins swimming wild and free. Image: Christopher Swann
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Respite for dolphins in the Bay of Biscay

Bianca Cisternino

Bianca Cisternino

Bianca is WDC's bycatch coordinator. She leads our work to protect whales and dolphins from their biggest threat: accidental entanglement in fishing gear.

Hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins die in fishing nets annually. It’s known as ‘bycatch’ and more than 9,000 common dolphins fall victim to this grim fate in the Bay of Biscay every year. Now, after years of campaigning, a glimmer of hope emerges as the French government has finally taken some action that could save thousands of dolphins. 

The Bay of Biscay is a large inlet of the Atlantic Ocean located between the western coast of France and the northern coast of Spain.
The Bay of Biscay is a large inlet of the Atlantic Ocean located between the western coast of France and the northern coast of Spain.

Unseen threats

Picture this: a pod of common dolphins gracefully weaving through the waves, a sight that characterises the beauty of marine life in the Bay of Biscay. Yet, beneath the surface, a perilous challenge unfolds as they must navigate a treacherous labyrinth of fishing gear to find their dinner. The ever-present threat of getting trapped in a fishing net casts a dark shadow over these majestic creatures, with the constant risk of injury and tragically, death ominously looming. Worldwide, accidental entanglement in fishing gear is the biggest threat they face.

Porpoise dies after becoming entangled in fishing net

Can you help protect dolphins from their biggest threat?

Like us, dolphins breathe air, so when they get trapped in a net, it’s a race against time to reach the surface or escape. In their desperation to free themselves and avoid suffocation, some tear muscles, break teeth, and sheer off fins. The more these dolphins struggle, the more entangled they can become. Those fortunate enough to escape are often left with painful injuries.

Harbour porpoise entangled in gill net on a beach in Wales
It's likely this Harbour porpoise suffered a horrible death as she struggled to free herself to reach the surface to breath.

Short-term safety

In a monumental win for the common dolphins, and for all of us who have campaigned long and hard for action, the French government has made the groundbreaking move to ban almost all commercial fishing activities in the Bay of Biscay from 22nd January to 20th February. Strategically timed during a peak fishing season, this one-month closure of fisheries in the region provides the dolphins with a much-needed respite from the constant threat of entanglement. Like any intelligent and social species, dolphins need safe spaces to thrive, and this temporary hiatus transforms the Bay of Biscay into a sanctuary. During this time, these magnificent dolphins can swim freely without the risk of getting tangled in fishing gear.

Common dolphin
Common dolphins

Imagine the incredible impact a permanent ban could have on ensuring the freedom and safety of these dolphins.

The closure isn't just a solution; it's an opportunity for education. Fishers, communities, and ocean users can come together to learn about sustainable fishing practices, ensuring a future where dolphins and fishers coexist harmoniously. It gives fishers a chance to explore and adopt more dolphin-friendly fishing methods. With time on their side, they can look into technology that reduces the entanglement risk, and implement limits on when and where to fish.

A trawl
Fishers have an opportunity to develop strategies to protect the dolphins from fishing activities © Greenpeace

Long-term commitment

As we celebrate this victory, we need acknowledge how long it’s taken for anything to be done. The French government's decision comes after a staggering 30 years of insufficient action.

This closure is long overdue, but it undeniably represents a positive stride towards the conservation of marine life in the Bay of Biscay. While the ban’s duration is much shorter than we had hoped, it signifies a tangible commitment to addressing the longstanding issue of bycatch. As advocates for marine conservation, we recognise the significance of this move as a stepping stone toward a future where common dolphins can navigate their habitats without the constant threat of entanglement.

Three common dolphins leaping out of the water in a line
We must protect these awesome beings.

Your choices, their safety

You can play your part through the choices you make. We’ve collaborated with leading supermarkets to audit the source of their fish and other marine wildlife, but by choosing not to eat fish or to eat less fish and be mindful about the fish you buy, you’ll send a powerful message to the fishing and retail industries. To minimise your impact, consider opting for fish caught using pole and line or by one-by-one fishing. Together, we can create a healthy ocean where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.

Pole-and-line fishing, Maldives, 2016 - ® IPNLF
Pole-and-line fishing, Maldives, 2016 - ® IPNLF

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If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us prevent dolphins and whales dying from accidental entanglement in fishing gear.