Cetacean Bycatch

Bycatch - the incidental capture of non-target species - poses the a serious threat to dolphins, porpoises and whales. Cetaceans are protected under the Biological Diversity Conventions, the Habitat and Species Directive and are treated as having Appendix I Status CITES within the European Union. In the UK, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the Conservation Regulations, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. These regulations prohibit the harassment, abuse and killing of porpoises, dolphins and whales.

photo: bycatch dead However, the fishing industry defies all the conventions, regulations, and laws under which cetaceans are protected. Thousands of cetaceans are dying in fishing nets yearly. The full extent of the bycatch problem is not known, as many fleets prohibit observers. However, studies that have been carried out show that the problem is of monumental proportions. For example, the most destructive of all pelagic (mid-water) trawlers, are the pair trawlers which tow nets of gigantic proportions. They are so large that 12 jumbo jets could easily fit inside one net. It is estimated that in a six week period at the beginning of the millennium, over 2000 dolphins died in nets of French and Scottish pair trawlers alone.

It is estimated that 6% of the harbour porpoises in the Celtic Sea, and 4% in the North Sea, is killed each year in fishing nets. The International Whaling Commission has stated that a continual kill rate of only 1% of a cetacean population will render it non-sustainable.

The result of this death and destruction is often seen on European beaches. A small proportion of bycatch cetaceans are found around the coasts of the UK. Vets at Institute of Zoology in London have examined stranded cetaceans from 1990-7. They found that 40% were found to be bycatch.

Death from bycatch is not quick. For example, the physical evidence of entanglement in fishing nets includes: lacerations on the head, body, fins and tail fluke; penetrating wounds in the lower jaw and head area, or severed flukes, fins, and tails caused by fishermen using gaffs or fire axes to remove cetaceans from the net; broken bones and teeth; internal haemorrhage and signs of asphyxiation; bite marks on all parts of the body caused by scavengers such as sharks; and beheading the animal, sometimes whilst still alive. If an ordinary individual carried out these acts of barbarism, the legislative procedure would ensure that the individual was punished. However, the fishing industry appears to be above the law.

The problem of cetacean bycatch is not a hopeless one. There are measures that can be taken to significantly reduce the number of needless deaths. Efforts to address bycatch problems in other countries are underpinned by targeted legislation and a legal framework of wide ranging duties and powers. In the USA, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the immediate goal was to reduce the incidental mortality or serious injury of marine mammals in commercial fishing operations to zero by April 2001.

In contrast, very little is being done by the member states of the European Community. Each country blames the others for the problem. The EU Commission has initiated further research into the problem, even though there have been more than twenty EU-funded reports in the last ten years, all showing need for action. The Amsterdam Treaty provides for the legal framework of fisheries policy to be amended to incorporate measures to address environmental concerns. Therefore, the EC Fisheries Policy could be amended to incorporate cetacean bycatch mitigation measures.

Take Action

Write to your MP/MEP, the EU Commissioner for Fisheries, Franz Fischler, and the Commissioner for the Environment, Margot Wallstrom, urging them to take action. The EU Commissioners work at 200, Rue de la Loi, B-1049, Brussels, Belgium. Please speak out on behalf of these beautiful, gentle and intelligent creatures, who cannot speak out for themselves.

Cetacean Bycatch Campaign (cetaceanbycatchcampaign@btinternet.com)

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