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Harbour porpoise. Image: Charlie Phillips/WDC

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Urgent step change needed to stop dolphins suffering in fishing nets

Does sustainably caught fish mean no harm has come to dolphins? The quick answer to that question is ‘no’. If you buy fish with a ‘sustainably caught’ or ‘dolphin safe’ eco-label, unless caught with a pole and line, you have no way of knowing whether dolphins, porpoises or whales suffered and died in the process of catching it.

When dolphins, porpoises and whales are accidentally caught in fishing nets and gear (known as ‘bycatch’), they can endure a slow and traumatic death. When fish from certain fisheries is labelled as ‘sustainable’ this suffering is not taken into account. There are huge welfare concerns associated with marine mammals getting caught in fishing gear and for that reason, there should be zero tolerance on whale and dolphin bycatch. We cannot say that any number of dolphins, porpoises or whales dying this way is acceptable. 

I’ve been examining this issue with my WDC colleague, Philippa Brakes, in a review which is published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Yangtze River dolphins (baiji) have been declared ‘functionally extinct’. Mexican vaquitas, North Atlantic right whales, New Zealand Māui dolphins and Baltic and Iberian porpoises, are all endangered and headed for extinction, either wholly or largely because of fishing. They are the unwanted waste of the fishing industry. 

We imagine that these air-breathing mammals drown, but worse, the post-mortem evidence suggests that when trapped in a net, unable to get to the surface to breathe, they asphyxiate, voluntarily holding their breath until they suffocate.

These species on the brink are the poster children of the dolphin bycatch issue. It’s only a matter of time before inadequately managed fishing pushes another species to the same fate as the baiji, but it’s blinkered to see this as just a numbers game. Even if fishing wasn’t pushing entire species to extinction, the situation would still be unacceptable because of the large-scale suffering involved. The sustainability of some fisheries is only part of the story.

There are many, many thousands of bycaught dolphins who go unnoticed and unreported, despite the injuries suffered, the broken bones and fins, broken teeth, abrasions, cuts, bruising, and internal injuries, and the potential for panic associated with forced submersion. A dead mother with a dependant calf will likely mean the baby, if not also bycaught, will starve to death. A large whale trapped in fishing rope could die slowly, a prolonged death that can last weeks or months, due to reduced mobility and ability to feed, the line slowly severing her flesh and limbs.

Whales and dolphins are intelligent, self-aware and social and often live in family groups. Bycatch can have wide-reaching impacts across these social units and suffering cannot plausibly be reduced without preventing bycatch.

Commercial fishing is the last human activity targeting wildlife on a grand scale where death includes accidental killing of other species on such a regular basis. It is hard to envision a similar situation on land where the regular and inevitable incidental capture of large mammals would be tolerated for the commercial killing of other species. Fishing is unlike any other commercial activity when it comes to the suffering of large mammals but because it is under the sea, somehow it is easier to ignore and delay action.

How have we failed marine wildlife so badly that we continue to fish without adequate measures to protect dolphins, whales and porpoises?  We need a step change in our fisheries.  And it has to start with transparency in the fleet.

Governments, ‘eco-labels’ and the fishing industry have been complacent about bycatch for too long. We are close to wiping out one population after another because laws and consumer labelling are inadequate. But just as importantly, hundreds of thousands of dolphins from non-endangered populations are also dying horrible, painful deaths so that we can have fish on our plates. Laws and government regulations focus on maintaining populations, rather than considering the welfare of individuals, but clearly we are even failing at that. No fisherman wants to catch a dolphin and when we consider the welfare impacts, there is no doubt that we all need to do more, much more, to safeguard individuals. This can only happen when there is a level playing field for fishers, with much stricter regulation.

The only real way to tackle this worldwide problem is for robust and transparent, independent management systems to be installed on fishing vessels. We need to better document bycatch by monitoring it across all fleets and most importantly, we need to work toward eliminating dolphin, porpoise and whale bycatch altogether. 

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