The EU fails to protect cetaceans

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European policies – and in particular the Common Fisheries Policy – put numerous species of whales and dolphins at risk of extinction, partly due to a disconnect between scientific research and policy, argues Greek MEP Kriton Arsenis (S&D).

Kriton Arsenis is a Greek MEP for the Socialists & Democrats, and a member of the Environment and Fisheries Committee.

"Though humans have always had a special connection with cetaceans, their protection has not been a policy priority within Europe for a considerable period of time.

This group of marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises plays an invaluable role in maintaining the balance within marine ecosystems. During my term in the European Parliament there has not been a serious discussion regarding the protection of cetaceans.

Following several meetings I had with marine scientists and NGO representatives I became aware of a serious gap that exists between research and policy development and implementation relating to the protection of cetaceans in EU waters.

I thus decided to give the issue some attention in the European Parliament. This week I am hosting a screening of the Academy Award winning documentary 'The Cove', which is an impeccably crafted exposé of the covert slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

Raising awareness regarding the need to protect cetaceans is imperative. It is shocking that despite the intrinsic value and their important role as top predators in maintaining the ecological balance of the marine ecosystem, cetacean populations have been dramatically decreasing in the last decades with some species being pushed to the edge of extinction.

Specifically, tens of thousands of cetaceans die every year in EU waters and some 300,000 animals die worldwide, which equals over 800 deaths per day. Though cetaceans face various threats such as habitat loss and degradation, collisions with vessels, underwater noise pollution from commercial and military sonars and seismic surveys, climate change, diseases, parasites and the capture of cetaceans for dolphinaria, the main threats result from fishing activities.

Cetaceans are not only accidentally killed and entangled in fishing nets but our dramatic overfishing and mass depletion of fish stocks in European waters is leading to a loss of potential prey.

If we continue at this rate our once fish-abundant waters will be void of life within 40 years. The upcoming Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) reform presents an opportunity to reverse this destructive trend and to ensure an effective mechanism for the conservation of protected species such as cetaceans.

I was rather disappointed that in the Commission proposal for the new CFP there is no specific mention of protected species in relation to the obligation to land all by-catches.

A lot of work remains to be done in order to ensure that we have an accurate estimate of cetacean by-catch and that an end is put to the discard of protected species and to the intentional killing of cetaceans by fishermen due to competition for fish stocks.

Overall, it seems that though a plethora of legislative instruments which prescribe a high level of protection for cetaceans exist within the EU there is no coherent overarching framework to ensure the coordinated and effective implementation of such measures.

The establishment of marine protected areas to protect the nursing grounds of whales, dolphins and porpoises along with the creation of fishing reserves, areas in which fishing activities are restricted with the aim of replenishing fish stocks, will play a vital role in ensuring the effective protection of these species and of our marine ecosystems.

Excuses such as a lack of data or an inability to locate the nursing grounds of these highly migratory species are no longer viable. There are an awful lot of marine scientists who prove we possess the data necessary to put in place an effective framework for the conservation of these invaluable species.

The precautionary principle is enshrined within the European Treaty and we have an obligation to achieve a good environmental status of our oceans by 2020 based on the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and to establish a network of marine protected areas by 2012 according to the Habitats Directive.

Now is the time to act. We need to ensure that existing European environmental and fisheries legislations are correctly implemented and that there is adequate monitoring and control of fisheries and other human activities relating to the marine environment. Cetaceans have been an inspiration to people since antiquity and we owe it to the future generations to ensure their effective protection."

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