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Urgent action needed to protect dolphins and porpoises from bycatch in European waters

Marine scientists in University College Cork are calling on the EU to adopt a comprehensive plan to protect dolphins and porpoises from fisheries bycatch in European waters.

A team of conservation experts, led by Professor Emer Rogan from the School of BEES and the ERI, have highlighted limitations in EU’s efforts to address and mitigate bycatch. The scientists argue this ineffective response is a result of a lack of clear management responsibility and objectives for the conservation of dolphins and porpoises in Europe, and conclude that the failure to act reflects a lack of political will and action to tackle this issue.

To help address the bycatch issue, which is the primary global threat to dolphins and porpoises (also known as cetaceans), the researchers put forward  a framework to reduce bycatch levels.

Publishing their recommendations in the journal Fish and Fisheries, the scientists outline a two-step approach that involves establishing a specific management objective for each population and implementing monitoring programmes. To ensure an accurate estimation of bycatch levels, the experts recommend using electronic monitoring systems that allow a more comprehensive and representative sampling of the fleets.

The scientists also recommend regular formal assessments of small cetacean populations, including  estimates of population numbers and bycatch mortality.  If total bycatch has been estimated to exceed a calculated biological reference point, then a mitigation strategy needs to be put in place.

The research team, involving experts from Newcastle University, England and Duke University, USA, argue that European countries outside the EU also have a responsibility to address the bycatch of dolphins and porpoises in their Exclusive Economic Zones. This includes the UK, which has an important responsibility to develop frameworks to address bycatch.

Professor Emer Rogan, from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University College Cork argues that despite a number of EU Regulations and Directives, there is no clear European framework to reduce the mortality of dolphins and porpoises in fisheries to sustainable levels.  This limitation hampers the effective implementation of effective management actions.

Professor Per Berggren, of Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, said:

Among the most distinctive species of marine wildlife in Europe, cetaceans are vital to the history and culture of European maritime communities and generate significant revenue from ecotourism. However, bycatch of small cetaceans in European fisheries is widespread, including very large numbers of common dolphins in trawl fisheries and bycatch of the critically endangered population of harbour porpoise in the Baltic Sea.

Professor Andrew Read, of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said:

The failure to effectively conserve Europe’s dolphins and porpoises is not a result of a lack of scientific knowledge or difficulties in monitoring fisheries and bycatch. Instead, it reflects a lack of political will to ensure that these iconic animals are protected from unsustainable mortality in commercial fisheries throughout European waters. We can and must do better.

Publication: The research article is available in full and free of charge from Fish and Fisheries here