Evidence of the Cause of Dolphin Deaths

As more dolphin bodies are washed ashore, WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Society, has today revealed the latest evidence of the carnage to dolphins being

caused in fishing nets in waters west of the British Isles. Irish research on

a trial pelagic (mid-water) pair trawl fishery for albacore tuna recorded 30

dolphins being caught in a single haul(1). WDCS is renewing its call

for urgent action to be taken to address the dolphin and other cetacean bycatch

in pelagic trawls. The Society is also deeply critical of the lack of progress

being made by the UK government on the problem of cetacean bycatches in fishing


The Irish study aimed to identify alternative fishing methods to the driftnet

fishery for albacore tuna, which was outlawed at the beginning of this year

because of the high incidental capture of dolphins and other wildlife. The report

concluded that the pelagic pair trawl fishery for tuna is a viable alternative.

Commenting on the recorded bycatch of 145 cetaceans (2) caught by just

four pairs of trawlers in a single season, the report noted that "some

incidental catches of cetaceans in this fishery, as with most other pelagic

fisheries, would seem inevitable".(3)

Commenting for WDCS, Ali Ross stated "We have known for years that these

pelagic trawl nets are responsible for major dolphin kills but these findings

provide some of the strongest independent and scientific evidence yet of the

scale of the problem".

While the albacore tuna fishery occurs over the summer months, other pelagic

trawl fisheries are currently operating in the waters to the west and southwest

of the UK and Ireland. So far this year an incredible 80 dead dolphins have

been found on beaches in England and Wales(4). Many of the animals show

clear signs that fishing nets were the cause of their death and some bodies

have been deliberately mutilated.(5) In common with previous years, this

high incidence of dolphin bodies coincides with the pelagic pair trawling for

sea bass in the area. Pelagic trawl fisheries in these western waters - including

for bass, mackerel, tuna and horse mackerel are being conducted by French, British,

Irish and Dutch fleets amongst others.

WDCS is calling on the EU to address this problem by requiring these pelagic

trawlers, and other fisheries with the potential to catch cetaceans, to be independently

monitored. Those fisheries responsible for unacceptable bycatch levels (6)

must then be subject to strict management programmes to reduce their impact

- or face closure. The European Union is in the process of reforming the Common

Fisheries Policy which is due to be completed by the end of 2002, presenting

an ideal opportunity to address this major conservation and animal welfare problem.

The UK Government initiated an "interdepartmental Bycatch Response Strategy

Working Group" in early 2001 with the aim of producing a strategy designed

to achieve prescribed bycatch reduction targets. However, it is yet to produce

any tangible results and WDCS is deeply concerned that its work is not being

adequately prioritised and has, effectively, ground to a halt.


1. Diversification trials with alternative tuna fishing techniques including

the use of remote sensing technology. Final Report to the Commission of the

European Communities Directorate General for Fisheries. EU contract No. 98/010.

Bord Iascaigh Mhara. Irish Sea Fisheries Board.

2. 127 common dolphins, 8 striped dolphins, 8 pilot whales, 2 Atlantic whitesided


3. page 48. The Irish report also states "From all available evidence

obtained it would appear that the majority of cetacean by-catches in pelagic

trawls are isolated incidents, when relatively large numbers can be captured.

With increasing experience in the tuna fishery and by observing a number of

simple fishing practices - it is firmly believed these bycatches will be reduced

to negligible levels" (page 49). However, it then points out that all the

pairs involved in the trial were strongly urged to follow these guidelines,

which suggests that they were not entirely successful.

4. These data are provided by the Natural History Museum.

All dead stranded whales and dolphins in the UK should be reported to the Museum:

Phone number 0207 942 5155

The number of animals that strand on beaches is only a small proportion of

those that are killed. Many bodies either sink or drift at sea. The proportion

of animals that appear on beaches largely reflects weather conditions, particularly

wind strength and direction. The only way accurately to assess how many dolphins

are being killed in fishing nets is to place independent observers onboard fishing

vessels to monitor their catches.

5. Signs of bycatch include net marks on the skin, broken teeth, damaged beaks

and characteristic signs in the lungs. Mutilation of bodies includes removed

heads, fins, flukes and opened body cavities. These are thought to occur either

in untangling the body from the net or deliberately to encourage the body to


6. Parties to the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic

and North Seas (ASCOBANS) have recently defined as "unacceptable"

takes of more than 1.7% of a population in the short term and have agreed a

general aim to

minimise (i.e. to ultimately reduce to zero) these catches.