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Bycatch limits needed to conserve Europe's dolphins and porpoises

14th April 2001

UNEP News Release 01/48

Nairobi/Bonn, - Limits on the numbers of dolphins and porpoises accidentally killed in fishing nets are urgently needed if healthy populations are to be restored to the North Sea. The recommendation is being made by members of an international conservation treaty backed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

ASCOBANS, the Agreement on Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas, will be pressing the European Commission (EC) to restrict the level of marine mammals dying after entanglement in nets to less than 1.7 per cent of their populations annually as a first step towards improving their conservation.

It is hoped that these "by catch limits" will form part of a review of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which has been launched by the commission and which is due to be completed in December 2002.

Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, says:"Studies indicate that in some parts of the North Sea and adjacent waters, such as the Celtic Sea, six per cent of small cetaceans are being lost annually as a result of becoming entangled in fishing nets. This may amount to more than 2,000 harbour porpoises annually in the Celtic Sea. Scientists advise that this level of bycatch is unsustainable and threatens to undermine conservation efforts".

He adds that the decision to review the CFP, partly with a view to make it more environmentally-friendly, offered a "golden opportunity" to address the threat to dolphins and porpoises from trawlers and other types of fisheries.

"Placing a clear limit on the levels of dolphins and porpoises being lost in fishing gear could play an important role in guaranteeing a recovery of these charismatic and intelligent marine mammals in European waters," says Mr Toepfer.

Mark Tasker, the newly elected chair of ASCOBANS, says technologies such as pingers were available which might help fishermen reduce the level of by catch.

Pingers are small devices which, when attached to nets, emit sounds that are designed to warn marine mammals of imminent danger.

Tests in British and Danish waters indicate that the bycatch of small cetaceans can be cut by more than 90 per cent when pingers are deployed.

Other technologies, which might help establish how and why marine mammals get caught and which may be commercially available soon, include special underwater video cameras.

Dr Peter Reijnders, the former chair of ASCOBANS, adds that other measures, some of which have been pioneered in the United States, might also be key.

"The United States is in some ways ahead of Europe on the conservation of small cetaceans. Different types of fisheries have been ranked according to the risk or threat to dolphins and porpoises and appropriate action has been taken," he said.

These actions can include closing or restricting the time that fishing vessels are allowed in areas where marine mammals are known to congregate.

"However enforcement will be crucial to the success of reducing cetacean bycatch. We also need independent observers on fishing vessels to monitor levels of bycatch and to verify that technologies and measures brought in are working," says Dr Reijnders.

Robert Hepworth, Deputy Director in UNEP's Division of Environmental Conventions, stressed the importance of plans to carry out a survey of small cetacean populations, which is scheduled to launch in 2003 or 2004, would also be important.

The survey, called Small Cetacean Abundance in the North Sea or SCANS II, follows a similar survey carried out in 1994 in the North Sea and adjacent waters. For the first time it gave governments, scientists and wildlife groups an assessment of the abundance of marine mammals including harbour porpoise, minke whale and white-beaked dolphin in the region.

Mr Hepworth says the second survey, being orchestrated by Dr Phil Hammond of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews in the UK, would provide important knowledge on whether populations are rising, falling or are stable.

"Without this kind of survey, it will be difficult to assess whether the 1.7 per cent limit on bycatch is working," he says.

Rudiger Strempel, the Executive Secretary of ASCOBANS, said that he hoped that the new survey would extend south and west of the North Sea into Irish, Spanish and Portuguese waters.

"By bringing in the waters of these important fishing nations, we should be able to extend our knowledge and thus protection of several threatened species of small whales and dolphins," he adds.

ASCOBANS, whose members are Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom supported by scientists and wildlife groups, have studied five fisheries where the issue of accidental entanglement is known or suspected to be a problem.

These are the Celtic Sea and the Central and Southern North Sea bottom set net fisheries; the bass trawling fishery in the South Western Approaches; fisheries in the Swedish Skagerrak and pelagic trawls for fish such as hake, tuna, herring and horse-mackerel carried out at a variety of locations.

A range of proposals, some of which are specific to individual fisheries, are being recommended to reduce the threat of bycatch. These include more widespread use of pingers and studies into alternative fishing methods including longlining. Requests are also being made to governments for more information on net sizes and the amount of time nets are deployed in key areas.

Sarah Jones, Marine Policy Officer at the World Wide Fund for Nature which is an observer of ASCOBANS, says:"Action is needed now to address the issue of dolphin and porpoise bycatch. I hope that the Commission and eventually EU fisheries ministers will take our proposals and recommendations on board. But the response needs to be tailored to suit the conditions of each fishery where there is concern. It must also take into account the economic and social impacts on fishermen and their families".

Mark Simmonds of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says, while bycatch remained the number one concern, other threats to dolphins and porpoises need to be addressed. He highlighted pollution and the possible impact of sonar, used by the military, on the health of cetaceans.

"High speed ferries, which are becoming increasingly popular on routes in the North Sea and the Baltic, are becoming another area of concern. The worry here surrounds collisions between dolphins and porpoises and these high speed vessels," says Mr Simmonds.

High speed ferries are classed by the ASCOBANS Secretariat, based in Bonn, as those capable of travelling at speeds in excess of 30 knots. A survey by the secretariat indicates that numbers of fast ferries has climbed dramatically in the past few years with "hot spots" identified as the English Channel, the Irish Sea and the Danish Sound.

"The number of vessels reported for the Baltic has risen dramatically from two to 15…the number reported for the English Channel has risen from eleven to 19," the report says.

The fastest ferry operating in the Baltic was found to be the Villum Clausen, which operates between Ronne and Ystad, at speeds of up to 50 knots.

One of the fastest in the English Channel is the P&O Catalonia, which operates between Portsmouth and Cherbourg, at speeds of up to 42 knots.

Notes to editors: The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas was concluded in 1991 under the auspices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals which is known as the UNEP/CMS or Bonn Convention.Many countries bordering the Baltic and or the North seas have become Parties to the Agreement.

The 8th Advisory Committee Meeting of ASCOBANS was held in Nymindegab, Denmark, between April 2 and April 5, 2001.

A draft Green Paper on Common Fisheries Policy reform was published by the EC in March 2001. Comments to the commission should be made by September 30, 2001. Finalisation of the reforms are scheduled for December 2002 with the new policy in place in January 2003.

For more information please contact Nick Nuttall, Media Officer, UNEP, P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel: 254 2 623084, mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, e-mail: or Tore Brevik, UNEP Spokesman/Director, Communications and Public Information, in Nairobi on Tel: 254 2 623292, fax: 254 2 623927, e-mail: or Robert Hepworth, Deputy Director in UNEP's Division of Environmental Conventions, on Tel: 254 2 623260, e-mail: or Mark Tasker, chair of ASCOBANS, on Tel: 44 (0) 1224 655701, e-mail: mark.tasker@ or Mark Simmonds of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, on Tel: 44 (0) 01225 334511, mobile: 0771 890 8626, e-mail: or Sarah Jones of World Wide Fund for Nature UK, on Tel: 44 (0) 1483 412522, e-mail:

UNEP News Release 01/48