Cetaceans are under fresh threat in the EU

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There are only 250 Baltic harbour porpoises left. [Shutterstock]

Cetacean bycatch has been a major conservation and animal welfare concern in the EU for decades, but moves are afoot to potentially water down protections for such sensitive marine species. Sarah Dolman, Sarah Baulch and Jo Swabe argue that better monitoring and mitigation measures in new legislation could help to eliminate this problem.

Sarah Dolman is Policy Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Sarah Baulch is Oceans Campaigner at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Dr Joanna Swabe is Senior Director of Public Affairs at Humane Society International/Europe (HSI)

Fishing nets and gear pose a significant threat to dolphins, porpoises and whales. Accidental entanglement in fishing gear often proves fatal to cetaceans. Those animals unable to free themselves will endure horrific deaths, suffering serious injuries while struggling to escape and eventually suffocating underwater.  

In the EU, all cetacean species are strictly protected under the Habitats Directive. Additional technical measures (Regulation (EC) No. 812/2004) were adopted in a bid to reduce the number of cetaceans caught incidentally through the use of acoustic deterrent devices. This legislation also introduced a system for monitoring bycatch in certain EU fisheries.

Yet, despite legally binding requirements to monitor and reduce cetacean bycatch, high numbers of dolphins, porpoises and whales continue to die unnecessarily in our waters. There has been a failure to sufficiently monitor cetacean bycatch in most fisheries, which – in turn – has also hampered attempts to take effective mitigation measures to eliminate the problem.

Recognising the weaknesses in the current cetacean bycatch legislation, last year the European Commission adopted a proposal to repeal it and incorporate its provisions into a new regulation on the conservation of fishery resources and the protection of marine ecosystems through technical measures as part of a wider suite of measures to protect marine ecosystems.

This proposed legislation provides an opportunity to improve monitoring and mitigation requirements against cetacean bycatch, but sadly lacks the detailed technical measures that are necessary. It is now up to both the Council and Parliament to try to strengthen the legislation to provide European cetaceans with the increased protection that they desperately need.

The future for cetaceans in European waters will, however, look bleak, if the European Parliament opts to follow the positions taken in the report drafted by the Fisheries Committee rapporteur.

Rather than strengthening the Commission’s proposal and the measures set down in the existing cetacean bycatch legislation, the recommendations in the draft report, if adopted, would significantly weaken them. Indeed, the numbers of dolphins, porpoises and whales dying in fishing gear would be likely to further escalate, rather than decrease, if existing protections are watered down or removed altogether, as proposed in South Western waters.  

By far the most egregious proposed amendment to the legislative proposal is the deletion of the prohibition on carrying and deploying driftnet gear in the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea harbour porpoise is a distinct and critically endangered species. Widespread hunting in the Baltic in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries caused the population to crash. It has never recovered and there are currently fewer than 250 mature animals. The main present-day threat is bycatch and the current rate of removals – without the addition of drift nets – is not thought to be sustainable.

The reintroduction of driftnets into the Baltic could well prove to be the last nail in the coffin for the porpoise population there. It would be erroneous to simply assume, as has been suggested, that low bycatch numbers of the species in the Baltic are due to bycatch not being a problem. There are so few individuals left in the population that to expose them once again to the risk of drowning in driftnets would be unconscionable.

ASCOBANS, the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas, aims to achieve a zero bycatch of cetaceans. The EU is a signatory to this agreement but has not yet ratified it. Nonetheless, many EU Member States are parties in their own right to this Agreement and the aim of any new legislation should be in line with its commitments. We should be seeking to monitor, minimise and – wherever possible – to eliminate cetacean bycatch, rather than weakening existing protections.

The EU can work towards eliminating the needless deaths of dolphins, porpoises and whales in fishing gear in a number of ways. For example, monitoring requirements need to be coherently defined at an EU level and should apply to all fishing vessels, irrespective of their size, gear type or geographic area.

Likewise, annual reporting of bycatch data by member states is essential to evaluate the cumulative magnitude of bycatch mortality, detect changes in bycatch rates, enable appropriately targeted action to be taken and to monitor the effectiveness of mitigation.

Mitigation measures should not only be applied in all set-net fisheries with a risk of cetacean bycatch (irrespective of vessel size, gear type or geographic area) but are also needed for other types of fisheries. For example, pelagic trawl fisheries targeting tuna, bass, and hake, and fisheries using very high vertical opening trawls are of particular concern.

The fate of cetaceans in European waters lies significantly in the hands of the European Parliament. Fortunately, a whole host of amendments have been tabled to the draft PECH committee report, which propose measures that would help to eliminate cetacean bycatch through better monitoring, reporting, assessment, and mitigation.

As animal and environmental protection organisations, we urge politicians to support all measures that will help reduce the unnecessarily and inadvertent deaths of dolphins, porpoises and whales in fishing gear.