Culture

France slammed for dolphin deaths

Bad fishing remains the number one threat to the survival of marine mammals

Thanks to three years of at-sea campaigns in the Bay of Biscay to expose the French fishing industry’s responsibility for the deaths of thousands of dolphins every year, on July 2nd the Paris Administrative Court found the French State at fault for failing to take timely and effective measures to stop it.

After hearing both the arguments of the French government and Sea Shepherd, the judge stated that "the French authorities have delayed implementing concrete actions in view of the recurrent episodes of excess cetacean mortality on the Atlantic coast, particularly in the Bay of Biscay, since the 1990s and accentuated since 2016. This delay constitutes a failure by the State to comply with its obligations under European Union law, in particular its obligation to protect cetaceans and control fishing activities. Under those circumstances [...] Sea Shepherd France is entitled to maintain that that failure constitutes a fault of such a nature as to engage the responsibility of the State.”

The Tribunal justified its condemnation of the State based on the following elements:

- the poor conservation status of common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and porpoises
- the State's proven failure to establish a catch control system
- the delay in implementing a monitoring system and the inadequacy of the data collected
- the inadequacy of measures that are limited to a simple reporting obligation and pingers (acoustic deterrent device aiming at pushing dolphins away from their feeding area, which constitutes a form of harassment and whose effectiveness remains to be proven).

France has highest mortality rate of dolphins in fishing nets in Europe

France already recorded high numbers of marine mammals - particularly common dolphins - washing up dead on the beaches for the past 30 years, but in 2016 that death rate spiked and continues to grow. Autopsies carried out by scientists conclude that up to 90% of the dolphins killed were victims of fishing gear, showing visible signs of cuts and abrasions, puncture wounds, fractured rostrum, amputated tail and pulmonary hemorrhage, all symptomatic of a traumatic and painful death. The dolphins autopsied, including pregnant or lactating females, were otherwise in good physical condition and well fed, ruling out other causes of death.

Fishing is the number one threat to the survival of marine mammals in the short term

For the past three years, Sea Shepherd has been the only organization present on the French Atlantic coast, patrolling the Bay of Biscay to document fishing catches and help scientists identify the responsible fisheries using images of dolphins trapped in trawler nets, even “artisan” fishing boats and those equipped with acoustic repellents.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, the French State has done little to remedy the situation

After first blaming the dolphin deaths on storms, the Fisheries Committees along with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Ecological Transition have failed to take sufficiently ambitious and effective measures to stop the fishing practices responsible for the slaughter.

Despite a legal obligation, less than 0.4% of the dolphins caught in fishing nets are declared

Despite a legal obligation to declare dolphin catches since 2012, the State didn’t have the OBSMER system in place to receive those declarations until 2019. To date, less than 0.4% of the catches have been declared.

"The European Commission questioned France about the weakness of its data, which represents less than 1% of the fishing activities," says Lamya Essemlali, President of Sea Shepherd France. “Moreover, the presence of observers is dependent on the goodwill of the fishing boss and is non-existent on vessels under 12 meters whose responsibility for catching dolphins has been established by scientists and confirmed by our images," she continued.

None of the “artisanal’ gillnetters” -- a type of fishing vessel under 12 meters long that number in the hundreds in the Bay of Biscay -- have registered a single declaration despite video evidence filed by Sea Shepherd showing dolphins trapped in their nets.

Other ineffective measures: acoustic repellents

The Ministry of Agriculture and Ecological Transition and the Fisheries Committees also continue to promote counter-productive measures such as acoustic repellents (also called pingers), whose effectiveness remains to be proven. Studies have shown that chasing marine mammals from their feeding area could be even more detrimental to their survival than the catches themselves.

Sea Shepherd joins commission to urge Europe to hold France, Spain and Sweden accountable

In addition to taking the French State to court for failing to meet its European obligations to protect marine mammals and stubbornly refusing to put effective measures in place that could stop the slaughter, Sea Shepherd also joined forces with 26 NGOs to initiate a complaint against France and other European States. Following this joint complaint, the European Commission opened infringement proceedings against France, Spain and Sweden the first week of July.

Sea Shepherd is calling for concrete measures, such as banning non-selective fishing methods in the habitats of protected species and the installation of on-board cameras to document the real impact of fisheries, recommendations echoed by the ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), which now recommends the implementation of emergency measures to protect marine mammals in European states.

"In addition to the legal battle, our vessels will resume patrolling in the Bay of Biscay again this winter, and for as long as necessary," concluded Lamya Essemlali.

_For more information about Operation Dolphin ByCatch: https://www.seashepherdglobal.org/our-campaigns/dolphin-bycatch/ _

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