Press release: 10 February 2022

More than half a million citizens demand action to save thousands of dolphins from fishing nets in France and Spain

Over half a million citizens have signed a petition to demand action to stop thousands of dolphins dying in fishing nets in the Bay of Biscay. The petition has been handed over to European Commission Deputy Director General of DG Environment, Patrick Child, the French Director of Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Eric Banel, and the Spanish Secretary of State for Environment, Hugo Morán. The petition delivery takes place amid the peak bycatch season for dolphins, from December to March each year.

On behalf of the citizens, environmental groups have urged the French and Spanish governments to urgently adopt adequate measures to prevent the unnecessary deaths of these dolphins every winter, as they are legally required to do under EU environmental law.

The three representatives also received shared jigsaw puzzles, symbolising the need for cooperation to save our dolphins. The presence of a French representative was particularly important,  given that the French fleet is responsible for most of the fatal dolphin catches and that France is currently hosting the One Ocean Summit, presenting itself as a leader in ocean protection and sustainable fishing.

Allowing thousands of legally protected dolphins to die in fishing nets is incompatible with EU law, scientific advice, political commitments to reverse biodiversity loss, and climate change mitigation.

Six environmental NGOs – Seas At Risk, Blue Planet Society, France Nature Environnement, Ecologistas en Acción, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and ClientEarth – are urging the French and Spanish governments to adopt effective measures, in line with the scientific advice. Action must therefore include temporary closure of the fisheries responsible for dolphin catch during the peak bycatch period. The European Commission is also under pressure to act – despite launching an infringement procedure against the two countries in 2019, the Commission can and should take further action to make sure that the required measures are introduced.

"The deaths of thousands of supposedly protected dolphins trapped in fishing nets in the Bay of Biscay is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, whales and dolphins in all European waters are victims of incidental catches. In Europe, bycatch is the largest threat to most of these marine mammals," says Christine Adams, Fisheries Policy Officer at Seas At Risk. "The European Commission should listen to the citizens and  adopt measures to drastically reduce bycatch of sensitive species all across EU waters with a strong Ocean Action Plan."

ClientEarth wildlife and habitats lawyer John Condon says: "France and Spain have a legal duty to stop dolphins needlessly dying in the Bay of Biscay and they are completely failing to deliver on it. European citizens have made it overwhelmingly clear that they expect immediate action from the governments of both countries to stop these mass casualties. The EU Commission has a vital role here too – it needs to drive its legal action forward, making sure that EU law is respected and dolphins remain in our oceans, not washed up on our beaches."

John Hourston, Founder of Blue Planet Society, says: "Common dolphins are being massacred in an horrifically cruel way by trawlers targeting fish species as they aggregate to spawn. It happens every winter and is possibly the greatest non-cull slaughter of a large wild mammal in modern history. It’s a disgrace that the EU has turned a blind eye to this mass killing of a protected species for so long. Hundreds of thousands of EU citizens are demanding an end to dolphin bycatch in EU fisheries. We expect action now."

Chloé Godefroy, Policy Officer, France Nature Environnement, says: "France is the European champion regarding dolphin bycatch: it’s time we let go of this gruesome title. The fact that a government representative showed up today to accept the petition and acknowledge the citizens’ demand is an encouraging step towards taking responsibility and committing to the protection of marine biodiversity. We will now be waiting for actual measures to be taken to end dolphin bycatch. As France is both hosting the One Ocean Summit and presiding the EU council, we hope the government will seize this opportunity to act as the blue leader they are claiming to be."

Cecilia del Castillo, Fisheries Policy Officer at Ecologistas en Acción, Spain, says, “No sufficient measures have been proposed nor implemented by the Spanish government to prevent  bycatch of protected species such as the common dolphin or the iberian porpoise. Furthermore, the National Bycatch Plan just approved by the Spanish government lacks ambition to ensure bycatch mitigation. Economic and short-term arguments must not be used as excuses anymore. Halting the loss of marine biodiversity is urgent and saving our dolphins is a necessary step towards this direction.

Sarah Dolman, Bycatch programme lead, Whale and Dolphin Conservation says: "This wide-scale bycatch of common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay is happening at such high levels that scientific evidence suggests it is impacting their entire population. Those that end up on beaches are just the tip of the iceberg. Back in 2018 we raised a formal complaint to the European Commission and this has since been backed up by scientific evidence. The solutions to prevent bycatch exist, this serious problem can be solved, the French and Spanish governments can prevent dolphins dying in these waters. The citizens of Europe have spoken and they demand action."


Notes to editors:
  • PHOTOS FOOTAGE of the petition delivery and of stranded dolphins available here

  • VIDEO FOOTAGE of the petition delivery available here

  • The petition was launched by the Blue Planet Society on the citizens’ platform Change, and supported by NGOs. It demands that the European Commission and French and Spanish Ministers jointly implement the measures recommended by scientists to end common dolphin bycatch in the Bay of Biscay.  

    Scientists estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 common dolphins are killed in the Bay of Biscay every year due to harmful fishing activities, with peak deaths and strandings occurring between December and March. 

    Scientists from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) have identified bycatch as the main threat to this dolphin population and called for a closure of the fisheries responsible during the peak stranding period. 

    Like other cetaceans, dolphins are strictly protected in EU waters under the Habitats Directive. Member States are obliged to introduce measures to prevent the incidental capture of these species by their fisheries. However, no sufficient measures have been put in place to prevent dolphin bycatch and death, despite the problem persisting for decades.

    The governments of France and Spain have persistently breached their legal duty to protect dolphins, triggering the launch of an infringement procedure by the European Commission. Two years on, however, the situation remains stalled, with France and Spain still refusing to temporarily close the fisheries responsible for the spike in incidental captures and ignoring independent scientific advice on the urgent need to do so. Meanwhile, the Commission has still not advanced its infringement action, which it should do by issuing a ‘Reasoned Opinion’ to France and Spain. 

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.