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Common bottlenose dolphin © Tim Stenton

Tackling whale and dolphin bycatch in European waters

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

The EU and bycatch

We know whales, dolphins and porpoises in EU water are caught – and die - in fishing gear in large numbers, but we don’t know the full scale of the issue, because as yet, relatively few EU fisheries are required to undertake routine observer monitoring.

WDC has worked over decades to get better monitoring, better regulations and a reduction in the numbers dying. EU governments now have a legal responsibility to address the death of whales, dolphins and porpoises caught as bycatch:

  • The EU Habitats Directive obliges countries to monitor the accidental capture or killing of all whales and dolphins, and to ensure it does not significantly impact the conservation of any species.
  • 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. That’s right, countries should be aiming to end it all together.
  • In 2004, the European Community adopted a new regulation requiring all 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 nets). It also required countries to introduce observer schemes to monitor bycatch in some of their fisheries and asked for a total phase out of driftnet fisheries in the Baltic Sea.

These measures are far from perfect, but they have added to our knowledge of the extent of the problem and in some cases have led to changes that have reduced the number of deaths. It’s important to note though, that this means reduction of bycatch of some species in some types of fishing gear. There is a long way to go. For example there has been some success with pingers reducing porpoise bycatch. However, pingers can also cause disturbance issues for this sensitive and vulnerable species. Pingers must only be one of the range of conservation and welfare tools we will need to tackle this problem.

Regulations are now under review. WDC is working with colleagues in European NGOs to ensure that future regulations in Europe do a better job of reducing bycatch.


WDC's objectives

  • 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.

Case study:

WDC and common dolphins in the English Channel

One species seriously affected by bycatch is the common dolphin living in the English Channel.

Intensive trawling has led to huge numbers of dolphins dying in nets. Static gillnet fisheries are also taking a toll (nets anchored to the seabed which hang in the water like a wall).

During the winter fishing season, large numbers of dead dolphins wash up on beaches in south west England, France and increasingly Ireland. Many show the tell-tale signs of death in a net. In early 2017 alone more than a hundred dolphins washed ashore on the south-west English coast with bycatch marks on their bodies.

This catastrophe unfolded with the government not even understanding the scale of the problem, let alone putting in place measures to address it.

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. We were able to assess and reveal the scale of the problem and to this day are using our findings to put pressure on the government to act.

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”.

Common dolphin

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Orca - Rob Lott


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