Press release: 10 July 2019

Groups call on European Commission to take legal action against 15 governments over huge number of whale and dolphin deaths

Today 22 environmental NGOs [1], led by Whale and Dolphin Conservation, ClientEarth and Seas At Risk, have jointly called [2] on the European Commission to take legal action against 15 EU governments for failing in their legal duty to protect whales, dolphins and porpoises in the North East Atlantic from capture in fishing nets (bycatch).

The groups also call for emergency protection measures to be brought in for Baltic harbour porpoises, led by Coalition Clean Baltic, and North East Atlantic common dolphins to immediately prevent further deaths in these populations.

Bycatch is the biggest global killer of whales and dolphins, who face a horrific death if caught in a net. If they can’t surface quickly enough, they suffocate. In their desperation to escape, some tear muscles, break teeth, and sheer off fins. Those that do escape can be left with painful injuries and can die weeks later as a result.

The situation is particularly critical for some dolphin and porpoise populations. The North East Atlantic short-beaked common dolphin, has suffered high bycatch for decades, as evidenced by the stranded dolphins washing up on the coasts of Ireland, United Kingdom, France and Spain. This culminated this past winter in 1,200 dolphins washing ashore along the French coastline alone, over 80% of which were diagnosed as having been bycaught. These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, as for every dolphin body landing on a beach, many more decay at sea [3]. Marine biologists warn that commercial fisheries are now a major threat to this dolphin population [4]. To prevent thousands more deaths next winter, the fisheries responsible should be closed in the targeted period when the highest level of bycatch occurs.

The Baltic harbour porpoise is critically endangered [5], with only a few hundred animals left. One single incidental killing of a fertile female could have a devastating impact on the ability of the population to recover. To prevent the collapse of the population, emergency measures include a range of spatial closures of harmful fisheries in the Marine Protected Areas, and mitigation elsewhere in the Baltic Sea.

Tatiana Lujan, Wildlife Conservation Lawyer at ClientEarth said: “We are bringing this complaint because none of the countries involved are doing enough to prevent the killing, capture or disturbance of these magnificent marine mammals by fishing fleets. Under the EU’s Habitats Directive, these countries have an obligation to ensure strict protection for cetaceans, that fishing activities do not have a significant impact on their populations, and to monitor and minimise accidental capture. Each and every country is currently failing to comply with these obligations.”

Sarah Dolman, Policy Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation said: “Cetaceans are granted ‘strict protection’ under European legislation. Yet, poor implementation of the law means many thousands of dolphins, porpoises and whales die in fishing gear in European waters every year. The scientific evidence has shown us for decades that existing bycatch monitoring, mitigation and prevention are woefully inadequate. We need to act now to rectify this.”

Alice Belin, Senior Marine Policy Officer at Seas At Risk said: “Cetaceans play a very important role in the marine ecosystem. These animals die today because EU countries are not playing their part to protect them. According to the law [7], EU seas should be healthy and thriving by 2020. With less than 6 months to go, we ask the European Commission to step in and take the action that countries are failing to take.”

Ida Carlen, Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Officer at Coalition Clean Baltic said: “The Baltic porpoises need highly protected Marine Protected Areas that are real safe havens for them, not just ‘paper parks’. That’s why we are asking the European Commission to take urgent measures to protect this critically endangered population while Baltic governments come to an agreement on a long-term solution.”


Notes to editors:

[1] List of NGOs involved: 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.

[2] Cover letter “Complaint against the breach of species protection obligations under Article 12 of the Habitats Directive in relation to cetaceans”.

Cover letter “Urgent European Commission action needed to stop cetacean bycatch in Europe under Articles 11(4) and 12 of the Common Fisheries Policy Basic Regulation

[3] Pelagis

[4] In June 2019, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission recognised the urgency of the situation and the threat caused by bycatch to the conservation status of the North East Atlantic common dolphins.

[5] IUCN assessment ‘Phocoena phocoena Baltic Sea subpopulation’.

[6]  EU Habitats Directive:

Under the European Legislation of the Habitats Directive, European Member States must adopt measures to protect cetacean populations. European Regulation 812/2004 foresees that European Member States should fight against cetacean bycatch.

[7] Good Environmental Status of EU waters

About 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. We believe the law is a tool for positive change. From our offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, Berlin and Beijing, we work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest stages to implementation. And when those laws are broken, we go to court to enforce them.

About 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.

About 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.

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.