WDC has been working through ASCOBANS, the first "whale and dolphin" Agreement under the Convention for Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), to address the threats posed to cetaceans in the region including chronic problems of cetacean bycatch in European fisheries.

ASCOBANS is the acronym for the regional CMS Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, north-east Atlantic, Irish and North seas.

The aims of ASCOBANS are to assist international conservation efforts and scientific research of all species of toothed whale (which includes dolphins) in this region, except for the sperm whale. Sperm whales are considered to be a “large” cetacean and are therefore not covered in this Agreement.

ASCOBANS was agreed upon in 1991 and came into force in 1994, originally as the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas. In 2008, following an extension of the Agreement area, the name of the Agreement was changed to its current form.

Many species of small whales, dolphins and porpoises live in the Baltic, Irish and North seas and the north-east Atlantic. The harbour porpoise is the most common small cetacean species in the North Sea and the only cetacean species native to the Baltic Sea – it has therefore been selected as the flagship species of the ASCOBANS Agreement. 

What manmade threats are faced by whales, dolphins and porpoises living in the ASCOBANS region?

Human activities threaten whales, dolphins and porpoises in this part of the world in many ways, including through habitat loss, pollution (including chemical and noise pollution), and incidental catch by entanglement in fishing gear. This last threat currently kills thousands of whales, dolphins and porpoises each year.

Which countries have signed up to the ASCOBANS Agreement?

Parties to the Agreement include Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Countries that are found within the geographical area covered by the Agreement but have not signed up to it include Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Russia and Spain.

Which species are covered by the ASCOBANS Agreement?

The most important species covered by the Agreement are:

What actions have Parties to the ASCOBANS Agreement agreed to carry out?

Some examples of the actions that countries that have signed up to the ASCOBANS Agreement agree to do are listed below.

  • Habitat conservation and management - To prevent the release of pollutants that are a potential threat; to develop modifications of fishing gear and fishing practices to reduce by-catch and to prevent fishing gear from getting adrift or being discarded at sea; to regulate activities that can seriously affect animals’ food resources; to prevent other significant disturbance, especially noise pollution.
  • Surveys and research - Investigations are to be carried out to assess the wellbeing and seasonal movements of the animals concerned, to locate areas of special importance to their survival, and to identify present and potential threats to the different species.
  • Use of by-catches and strandings - By-catches and stranded specimens are to be efficiently reported and retrieved, and full autopsies are to be carried out on these specimens to, for example, collect tissues for further studies and to reveal possible causes of death. The information collected shall be made available in an international database.
  • Legislation - To endeavour to establish a prohibition under national law, of the intentional taking and killing of small whales, dolphins and porpoises, if there is not such a prohibition already; to endeavour to establish an obligation to release immediately any animals caught alive and in good health.
  • Information and education - The general public shall be provided with information to ensure support for the aims of the Agreement in general and to aid the reporting of sightings and strandings in particular; fishermen shall be provided with information to ease and promote the reporting of by-catches and the delivery of dead specimens as are required for research.