European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



Fisheries: Commission acts to protect dolphins and porpoises

24th July 2003

DN: IP/03/1111

TEXT: Franšais Deutsch


24th July 2003

The European Commission adopted today a draft Regulation to curb the accidental capture of cetaceans such as dolphins and harbour porpoises in fishing gear, as this is threatening the conservation of these species. The measures taken by Member States under the 1992 Habitats Directive have been insufficient to adequately protect these animals. The Commission therefore proposes a two-pronged approach: first, a short-term step designed to tackle by-catches by immediately restricting the use of driftnets in the Baltic and phasing them out completely by January 2007, and establishing the mandatory use of acoustic devices on gillnets throughout EC waters to warn off cetaceans. The second part will involve measures to ensure the monitoring of cetacean by-catches with a view to increasing knowledge of the phenomenon. Greater understanding of by-catches and better assessment of cetacean populations are necessary to develop more strategic measures at a later date. This proposal will now go to the Council and the European Parliament.

Welcoming the measures, Franz Fischler, responsible for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, said: "The Common Fisheries Policy must achieve sustainable fisheries without undermining marine biodiversity. These measures will ensure that fishing activities do not threaten the conservation of cetaceans while increasing knowledge of the interaction between these species and fishing gear."

Proposed measures

There are insufficient data to allow a precise estimation of the number of accidental catches of cetaceans in fishing gear, their distribution and their impact on populations. However, available scientific advice shows that most of the fishing gears commonly used in European fisheries are responsible for some cetacean by-catch. The most serious problems appear to be caused by gillnets and pelagic (mid-water) trawls. The Commission is proposing two main sets of measures to curb by-catches:

Phasing out the use of driftnets in the Baltic Sea:

Harbour porpoises are the most critically endangered small cetaceans in Europe. The population of Baltic harbour porpoises is so low as to make the impact of the rare by-catches significant for the conservation of this population. To protect biodiversity, the Commission proposes to limit the length of driftnets in the Baltic to 2.5 Km immediately. These driftnets would be progressively phased out by 1 January 2007 when their use would be completely prohibited. This has already been the case under the Common Fisheries Policy for driftnets in tuna fisheries in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean since 1 January 2002 on account of the danger that they pose to some species caught as by-catch.

Using acoustic deterrent devices

Wide-ranging tests on acoustic devices, better known as 'pingers', have been shown to reduce by-catches of small cetaceans such as dolphins and harbour porpoises in gill net fisheries around the world. Fisheries particularly relevant for this measure include bottom-set gillnets in areas frequented by harbour porpoises in the Baltic, North Sea, the Channel and the Celtic shelf. The use of pingers will become mandatory on gillnets and apply to all vessels involved in these fisheries. Small vessels will also be included as their contribution to the overall gillnet fisheries is significant and porpoises are found near the shore where these vessels operate.

Fishing gear will have to be clearly marked if this measure is to be properly monitored and enforced. The Commission will, therefore, shortly adopt detailed rules in this field. Since there is little experience of large scale use of pingers over long periods of time, the Commission proposes close monitoring of this measure to ensure its continuing effectiveness as a by-catch deterrent.

Monitoring of by-catches

The above-mentioned measures were recommended by scientists as a first step until more information was collected on the behavioural relationships between cetaceans and fisheries in order to design more comprehensive strategies. This is why, in addition to the short-term measures outlined above, greater knowledge must be gained through monitoring of fishing activities and improved assessment and surveillance of cetacean populations.

The Commission proposes therefore that Member States put in place, as a matter of priority, on-board observer schemes to monitor cetacean by-catches in the fisheries identified as presenting a high risk where pelagic trawls or gillnets are used. In the case of vessels to which the observer scheme cannot be applied for security or any such reason, Member States must establish alternative methods of independent monitoring at sea.

The Commission is proposing minimum levels of coverage by on-board observers. These vary from 10% of the fishing effort using driftnets in the Baltic to 5% using pelagic trawls to the west of Scotland, around Ireland down to the Bay of Biscay and in the Mediterranean. 5% is also the level proposed for bottom-set gillnets or entangling nets in the Baltic, the Celtic shelf and the Channel.

By-catch mitigation and monitoring obligations already existed under the provisions of the 1992 Habitats Directive 92/43/EC). However, their implementation was insufficient and uneven across Member States. This proposal provides a better definition of these obligations and stipulates priorities to ensure equity in their application across Member States.

Follow up

These various measures will have to be closely monitored in order to allow for their adaptation in the coming years if necessary. Member States will also have to ensure full monitoring of the state of cetacean populations as required under the Habitats Directive. These requirements are crucial not only for the success of the measures but also to ensure that the burden that they put on the fleets concerned is not greater than it needs to be.


Before drafting this new proposal, the Commission asked the International Council for the Exploration for the Sea (ICES) to provide advice on the fisheries that have a significant impact on small cetaceans, on the risk posed by these fisheries to identified populations and on possible remedial action. It also asked the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee on Fisheries (STECF) to review this advice and to provide possible management advice.

Click here to download the 2002 ICES report.