NGOs welcome scientists’ advice to halt bycatch of endangered Baltic Proper harbour porpoise

Scientists from the International Council for the Exploration (ICES) have published a landmark advice today, warning the European Commission that immediate action is needed to protect two critically vulnerable marine mammals.

ICES has urged the Commission to introduce emergency measures to prevent the needless deaths of thousands of common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay and harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea, killed every year as bycatch in fishing nets. 

In the Baltic Sea, the harbour porpoise is critically endangered. With only a few hundred animals left it is commonly called Europe’s vaquita, referring to the almost extinct Mexican Gulf of California porpoise, the vaquita. The bycatch of even a single reproductive female is likely to have a devastating effect on the population’s chances of survival, and the implementation of the measures proposed by ICES is a crucial step towards saving the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise.

Environmental groups welcome this advice, which follows action taken last year by 22 environmental groups, including ClientEarth, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Seas At Risk, Coalition Clean Baltic, France Nature Environnement, and IFAW. 

Answering NGOs’ concerns, scientists have specifically asked the Commission to implement spatio-temporal closures of especially static net fisheries in some important harbour porpoise areas in Sweden, Germany and Poland as well as large-scale use of pingers in the Baltic Proper. ICES also calls for improved monitoring of fishing effort and bycatch, to gain better knowledge on high risk areas and -gears.

ICES has also highlighted that protection measures will only be effective when applied over a long-term period. Accordingly, the Commission should not only adopt these measures as a first step in the short-term, but also ensure that the EU countries responsible adopt measures for the long-term survival of these populations. ICES has recommended an adaptive management approach with enhanced monitoring of common dolphin and harbour porpoise as well as bycatch in fisheries.

Ida Carlén, harbour porpoise expert at Coalition Clean Baltic, said:

We welcome the publication of the ICES advice, which draws on the best available scientific knowledge to set out clearly what the Commission and the Member States must do in the short term to save these cetacean populations. As stated in the ICES advice, it is of great importance that similar or even stronger measures are also implemented in the long term.

ClientEarth’s marine habitat lawyer John Condon said:

This conclusion underscores that Member States are failing to take their legal duties seriously to prevent bycatch. The Commission has an obligation to fulfil its role as the guardian of EU law by taking legal action against the EU countries that fail to prevent these unnecessary deaths.

Seas At Risk’s Senior Marine Policy officer, Alice Belin, said:

We are very concerned about the future of certain marine mammal populations in European waters, which are under huge pressure from fisheries bycatch. We encourage the European Commission to do everything it can to protect these animals by quickly taking on board ICES’ advice, which draws on the best available scientific knowledge.

Sarah Dolman from Whale and Dolphin Conservation said:

This scientific advice comes after the Commission has itself acknowledged the severity of dolphin and porpoise bycatch in its recent EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030. For nearly 30 years, Member States have not complied with European law on tackling bycatch and as a result, emergency measures are now required to protect common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay and harbour porpoises in the Baltic. The ball is now in the Commission’s court. It must take action to save cetacean lives.

ENDS

Read the PR in Swedish here.

Notes to editors

The Baltic Sea harbour porpoise is listed by IUCN and HELCOM as critically endangered. Today its geographical range is significantly smaller than its historical one, and there are only a few hundred animals left. While pollution and disturbance through underwater noise may be contributing to the population failing to recover, bycatch is the one acute threat causing direct mortalities in significant numbers. Given the small size of the population, the sex ratio and age distribution and the proportion of females that are potentially infertile due to high contaminant load, there may be less than 100 fertile females remaining in the Baltic Proper. Losing even one of those females could have a devastating effect on the ability of the population to recover or even stay stable.

Hence, to allow this critically endangered population to recover, bycatch must be reduced to an absolute minimum, ideally to zero. To date, initiatives from Member States to minimize bycatch are very limited and the long and slow process for Member States to agree on joint measures for nature conservation purposes under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is currently risking the survival of the population. 

Bycatch refers to the incidental capture in fishing gear of dolphins, porpoises, and other marine species, usually resulting in death.

Pingers are devices that transmit short high-pitched signals at brief intervals to alert the animals to the presence of fishing gear.

List of NGOs involved in the joint action: Whale and Dolphin Conservation, ClientEarth, Seas At Risk, Coalition Clean Baltic, Coastwatch Europe, Danish Society for Nature Conservation, Ecologistas en Accion, The Fisheries Secretariat, Fundació ENT, France Nature Environnement, Humane Society International, International Foundation for Animal Welfare, Irish Wildlife Trust, Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux, Marine Conservation Society, Natuurpunt, Oceana, OceanCare, Our Fish, Sciaena, Sea Shepherd France, Sustainable Water Network SWAN, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Wildlife and Countryside Link Bycatch sub-group, WWF.

About:

Coalition Clean Baltic
Coalition Clean Baltic is a network of 24 organisations from all countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. The main aim is to promote the protection and improvement of the environment and natural resources of the Baltic Sea Region.

Seas At Risk
Seas At Risk is an umbrella organisation of environmental NGOs from across Europe that promotes ambitious policies at European and international level for the protection and restoration of the marine environment.

ClientEarth
ClientEarth is a charity that uses the power of the law to protect people and the planet. We are international lawyers finding practical solutions for the world’s biggest environmental challenges. We are fighting climate change, protecting oceans and wildlife, making forest governance stronger, greening energy, making business more responsible and pushing for government transparency.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation
WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins.  We defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, lobbying, advising governments, conservation projects, field research and rescue.

IFAW
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is a global non-profit helping animals and people thrive together. We work across seas, oceans, and in more than 40 countries around the world. We rescue, rehabilitate, and release animals, and we restore and protect their natural habitats. Together, we pioneer new and innovative ways to help all species flourish. See how at ifaw.org.

France Nature Environnement
France Nature Environnement (FNE) is a French NGO working on a range of environmental areas including oceans and marine biodiversity conservation. FNE gathers more than 3500 local NGOs from all France including overseas territories, and FNE’s objective is to give them a voice and to protect the environment at a local, regional, national and European level.