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Emergency measures to prevent bycatch of dolphins and porpoises

ICES advises combination of fisheries closures and pingers in the Bay of Biscay and Baltic Sea to prevent further population decline.
Published: 26 May 2020

​​​​​​​One of the objectives of the EU Common Fisheries Policy is to ensure that negative impacts of fishing activities on the marine ecosystem are minimized. This includes, amongst others, avoiding and reducing unwanted catches of commercial and protected species. The EU also has environmental directives (Habitats and MSFD) that require the bycatch of cetaceans to be monitored and minimized. Each year, marine mammals die as a result of being caught in fishing gear. However, the increased number of dead ​dolphins that washed up on France's Atlantic coast from December 2018 until March 2019, caused alarm. Concerns have also been raised about the population status of harbour porpoise in the Baltic Sea. Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, urged the EU to take action on bycatch of dolphins and other marine animals. In a statement released in February 2020, he noted that, “The levels of bycatch we are facing are not acceptable. It can result in the extinction of local populations of protected species."

ICES already provides annual advice to the EU on the prevention of bycatch of protected, endangered, and threatened species. Following the increase in the number of common dolphins caught in the Bay of Biscay in recent years, the EU made a special request, asking ICES to provide additional advice on emergency measures for two specific populations: North East Atlantic common dolphin in the Bay of Biscay and Baltic Proper harbour porpoises​.

First step towards population recovery

With the release of today's advice, ICES advises that the emergency measures suggested by NGOs to the European Commission are broadly appropriate, but these should be modified depending on the management objective for bycatch and the populations of cetaceans. As yet, the EU does not have a set of agreed or ​unified management objectives across its policies and directives. Our advice also highlights that, in terms of dolphins and porpoises, protection measures will only be effective when they have been applied over a longer period of time. As the EU can only implement emergency measures for a period of six months (with a possible six month extension), ICES advises that these short-term emergency measures can only be considered as a first step toward longer term measures for small cetaceans.

For the North East Atlantic common dolphin in the Bay of Biscay, ICES advises a combination of temporal closures of all fisheries of concern during peaks of mortality (these are concentrated from December–March and July–August) and the use of pingers on pair trawlers to mitigate bycatch outside of the period of closure. Pingers are devices that transmit short high-pitched signals at brief intervals to alert the animals to the presence of fishing gear. The preventative measures suggested by NGOs were evaluated as appropriate in our advice, but we also suggest that they be amended in terms of closure duration and use of technical mitigation to achieve similar bycatch reduction.

The population of Baltic Proper harbour porpoises has been extremely low for many years and is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Bycatch, pollution, and underwater noise all have an effect on this population. Here again, ICES advises a combination of spatial-temporal closures and application of pingers in static net (i.e. trammel nets, gillnets and semi-driftnets) fisheries as mitigation measures to immediately reduce bycatch of harbour porpoises.

Long term planning

As stated, emergency measures can only be proposed for short periods of time but the fishing industry may question whether or not they could be proposed again in the following years, based on similar evidence. Sinead Murphy, GMIT and chair of the Review Group on Bycatch of North East Atlantic common dolphin and Baltic harbour porpoise argues that these concerns could be addressed by a well thought through long-term strategic plan. “During this period of short-term closures, long-term planning is essential to ensure reduced bycatch going forward, and I would see the emergency measures proposed here as a first step towards that process. Involvement of the fishing industry is key in both monitoring and mitigation of bycatch of protected species and only by their active participation in a process will we ensure the favourable conservation status of European protected species in the long term".

Read the full text of this advice online​.​​​

Bycatch advice strategy

Alongside the advice released today, we have also published a Roadmap for ICES bycatch advice on protected, endangered, and threatened species. The overarching goal of this roadmap is to assess risk and impact of fleet activity for incidental bycatch which will be included in our Fisheries Overviews by 2022. “Improving data availability and quality should be considered as the primary objective," states Mark Dickey-Collas, Chair of the Advisory Committee, “Our Working Group on Bycatch of Protected Species (WGBYC) will evaluate all bycatch data and information from multiple sources and determine the highest quality and best available science to be utilized for advisory purposes". ​ 

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The EU has asked ICES to advise on emergency measures to prevent bycatch of the North East Atlantic common dolphin and the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise.​

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Emergency measures to prevent bycatch of dolphins and porpoises

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