Shrouded By The Sea – the sad truth about dolphin deaths in fishing nets

The WDC report, 'Shrouded by the Sea' reveals the shocking truth behind the entanglement of whales, dolphins and porpoises in fishing nets, estimated to kill more than 300,000 of these animals worldwide each year.

The harrowing details of how whales and dolphins slowly meet their death in fishing nets, many suffering extreme injuries in what can be a protracted underwater struggle, are laid out in the report, which is significantly based on a new investigation by a research group at the University of Bristol.  The suffering of these animals in commercial fish production is contrasted with the welfare standards widely adopted for animals in commercial meat production, drawing the conclusion that this degree of suffering would not be tolerated if it occurred on land.

Most dolphins trapped underwater by fishing gear die of asphyxiation. While the time it takes for the animals to die in this way varies, it is likely that many are subjected to a longer period of of suffering than would be considered morally acceptable.



Whales and dolphins can hold their breath for long periods of time. The smallest porpoise can remain under water for over five minutes between breaths, and sperm whales can dive for over an hour between surfacing. The damage seen on bycaught animals shows that many of them struggle desperately to escape from their entrapment, sustaining horrific injuries in the process.

These deaths are known to be a problem in terms of conservation, with some species and populations being pushed literally to the brink of extinction through fisheries bycatch. What has not been properly recognised before is the significance of the suffering caused to each animal that gets caught. In the UK this month, we will start to see bodies wash up on southwest beaches as a result of the pelagic trawl and other fisheries operating in this region, in what has become an annual season of destruction of hundreds, probably thousands of dolphins and porpoises off our coasts.”

The severe injuries regularly seen in bycaught whales and dolphins are evidence of the suffering victims go through. Rope and netting often cause cuts and abrasions to the skin, tightening as the animal struggles and cutting deeper into the flesh. In extreme cases, fins and tail flukes can be totally or partially amputated by the tightening nets. Bodies of bycaught dolphins are commonly recorded as having broken teeth, beaks or jaws and extreme internal injuries.

Large whales that become entangled in fishing gear have been found with severe lacerations deep into their blubber and even into their bones. As these animals are powerful enough to swim away and pull the gear with them, the rope continues to tighten and cut into their body over time, often resulting in a slow and painful death.

WDC is calling for governments and regulatory bodies to act urgently and decisively to end this unacceptable suffering of whales and dolphins. This will require changes to the way fish are caught and even closure of fisheries where there is no effective or practicable way of preventing the incidental capture of whales and dolphins.

This is a serious animal welfare issue. We’re not just talking about animals suffering a protracted death but also a horrifically painful and distressing one. Animals are breaking teeth and jaws, severing fins and suffering deep gashes and internal injuries.  If this was occurring on land rather than out of sight, shrouded by the sea, the international community would have taken far stronger and far swifter action to bring an end to this problem. It is an outrage that we cannot allow to continue.”

The accidental capture and death of whales, dolphins and porpoises in fishing gear is a global problem, including in UK waters. Every year the bodies of hundreds of dolphin and porpoise bycatch victims are found on the shores around the UK, particularly in the south west of England. In 2007, 554 whales, dolphins and porpoises were recorded to have stranded on UK shores. Death in fishing nets was found to be the most common cause of death for stranded common dolphins in the UK, and one of the most common causes of death for stranded harbour porpoises. These figures do not include the many other dolphin and porpoise bodies that are either not post-mortemed, or whose bodies are never recovered.

WDC is calling for the UK Government to:

  • prioritise efforts to resolve the technical and administrative barriers to the effective implementation of the requirement for pingers to be deployed in specified gillnet and tangle net fisheries (under EC Regulation 812/2004);
  • in the absence of effective deployment of pingers, introduce alternative means of reducing cetacean mortality in those fisheries with unacceptable bycatch levels – including fisheries closures if necessary;
  • monitor gillnet and tangle net use, including gear type and size and temporal and geographic distribution, and their associated bycatch levels, in order to determine the most appropriate and effective bycatch mitigation measures;
  • increase and expedite research and development of alternative bycatch mitigation measures, including more selective fishing gear;
  • press for further measures within the EU to address the bycatch in pelagic trawl and other fishery types not provided for in EC Regulation 812/2004, again, including the restriction or closure of fisheries where technical solutions are not yet available.

Please contact your local elected representative and MEP to ask for their support.

To see a copy of Shrouded by the Sea please download from the link below

Shrouded by the Sea is underpinned by a new report - The Animal Welfare Implications of Cetacean Deaths in Fisheries by Carl D. Soulsbury, Graziella Iossa and Stephen Harris of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol, and sponsored by WDCS, which examines information collated in the UK Government’s database of cetacean post-mortems (Poseidon). For the full report please use the link below.