Dolphin Deaths - Time To Act!

02/10/2017 12:52 BST | Updated 02/10/2017 12:52 BST

The sea is full of hearts and minds. But it is a sad and often overlooked truth that our activities, especially those that are currently considered standard fishing practices, are terribly impacting many of the highly intelligent, sensitive and social marine animals found there, such as whales and dolphins. There is an urgent need to speak out on this issue in Europe right now because the European Union is revising key fisheries legislation and the European Parliament will vote on it in October. This legislation must contain strong protective measures for dolphins, whales and porpoises as a priority.

Meanwhile, the UK, as it prepares to leave the EU, is redefining its own fishing standards, including how to address the unwanted 'bycatch' of cetaceans, seals and other animals caught in fishing gear.

Surprisingly large numbers of dolphins, porpoises and even whales are unintentionally caught in fishing operations. They are not, of course, the target species. The fishers don't want them in their nets, but this is still a predictable consequence that needs to be addressed with comprehensive mitigation efforts.

Fisheries bycatch of dolphins and their kin is typically discussed in government and scientific circles in terms of its sustainability; in other words, how many can be killed without driving a population to extinction. This leads to difficult debates around how big the distinct dolphin populations are in the first place. The basic argument being that the larger the population, the more animals can be 'safely' removed. These issues are complex and there is an argument that some of the resources that go into developing 'sustainable' removal rates might be better used to develop methods to reduce or stop removals, especially given that if the European public were asked, they would probably not want to see any dolphins killed.

The deaths of air-breathing, breath-holding, big-brained mammals in nets also raise significant welfare concerns. This aspect is little talked about but it is clear that an animal who has evolved to come to the sea surface to breathe every few minutes will violently fight to escape being entangled. Some may indeed escape, although they may still be wounded, but many do not. Studies of their bodies show broken teeth, bones, bruising, torn muscles and other wounding. Typically, they also clamp their blow-holes closed, so eventually they suffocate rather than drown as a result of being trapped underwater. This process can clearly take many undoubtedly stressful and painful minutes. This is not a humane death and may be witnessed by others in their social group or family, also causing them distress.

Getting some idea of the numbers involved is difficult. However, this summer, hundreds of dead dolphin bodies are reported to have washed ashore on French coasts, many more than usual. Worldwide, more than 300,000 cetaceans have been estimated to be unintentionally caught in fishing operations annually. The scale of this will be surprising to many and it underpins the need to address this matter better and to urgently find answers.

The current EU legislation review, includes worrying proposals that would weaken the bycatch-related elements, including a proposal to allow the reintroduction of drift nets into the Baltic Sea. This indiscriminate fishing method would threaten a distinct and critically endangered population of harbour porpoises (estimated at less than 250 mature individuals) that live in the Baltic. This is very surprising and, clearly, should be opposed.

More positively, the UK Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, George Eustice MP, at a reception in London hosted by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation this month committed to make greater effort. He stated that he wants to see the UK be a global leader, inspiring others to protect cetaceans. This is very welcome and we can be hopeful that suitable actions will follow, including adding appropriate language to the legislation that will define how the UK moves forward in managing its own fisheries as it leaves the EU.

The fate of Europe's cetaceans lies in the balance. Humane Society International has been working closely with other NGOs in recent months to try to positively influence this process.

The European Parliament's Committee on Fisheries' vote on measures, including bycatch measures for marine mammals, turtles and seabirds, will probably be during the week of 9th October. This will be followed by negotiations aimed at achieving a compromise package that the European Parliament will finally vote on. If you are reading this in Europe (including in the UK) and you would like to help, please write to your MEP (you can find their name and contact details on the web) and ask them to ensure that strong protective measures for dolphins, whales and porpoises are included in the EU fisheries regulations. Likewise, British readers should ask their MPs to further encourage strong measures here, too.