Press release: 26 May 2020

Scientists call for immediate EU action to protect dolphins and porpoises following NGO request

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

A group of NGOs has welcomed the move, which came in response to their major intervention last year.

ICES has urged the Commission to introduce emergency measures, including the closure of certain fisheries, 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.

Bycatch is one of the biggest threats to the survival of marine mammals in European waters. In the Bay of Biscay alone, 11,300 common dolphins died during the winter 2018-2019 as a result of fishing activities. In the Baltic Proper, the harbour porpoise is critically endangered, with only a few hundred animals surviving.

Answering NGOs’ concerns, scientists have specifically advised the Commission to introduce the following measures:

  • For the common dolphin in the Bay of Biscay, a combination of temporary closures of fisheries responsible for bycatch during peak seasons and the use of acoustic devices (pingers) to reduce bycatch outside of peak seasons.
  • For the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise, a combination of closures and application of pingers in net fisheries.

ICES have 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, but also ensure that the EU countries responsible adopt measures for the long-term survival of these populations.

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.”

ClientEarth’s marine habitats lawyer John Condon said: “ICES has stressed that the lack of adequate bycatch monitoring, reporting, and data collection in fishing vessels is jeopardising the conservation effort to save marine mammals.

“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 EU countries that fail to prevent these unnecessary deaths.”

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 Proper.

“The ball is now in the Commission’s court. It must take action to save cetacean lives.”

Eleonora Panella from IFAW adds: “Bycatch is not only a conservation issue, but also a welfare concern. Animals are often subjected to a prolonged and stressful death when entangled in fishing gear, and people purchasing seafood products do not want their food choices to involve unnecessary suffering, nor to affect the conservation status of marine mammals.”


Notes to editors

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.

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.

For the winter period 2019-2020, 1,160 dolphin strandings have already been reported. This indicates a similarly catastrophic level of deaths due to bycatch as occurred in the winter 2018-2019, when 1,200 dolphin strandings were reported, with the vast majority dying as a result of bycatch.

On the critically endangered status of the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise, see IUCN assessment ‘Phocoena phocoena Baltic Sea subpopulation’.


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 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.

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.

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

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.