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EC must stop France and Spain from killing thousands of dolphins, warn NGOs

EC must stop France and Spain from killing thousands of dolphins – NGOs warn that thousands of common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay face horrific deaths in fishing nets this winter if the EU Commission does not step in with emergency measures to reduce bycatch, the single largest cause of harm and death to these dolphins today. Despite the legal requirement to protect this species and scientific recommendations [1] to close the fisheries responsible for the catches in this area, France and Spain are refusing to do so [2].

Due to the lack of effective action from France and Spain, the organisations Seas At Risk, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, France Nature Environnement, International Fund for Animal Welfare, ClientEarth, WWF, Ecologistas en Acción, and Sea Shepherd France call on the European Commission to follow the scientific advice it requested and urgently close the fisheries responsible for the incidental capture and killing of thousands of dolphins in the Bay of Biscay every winter. The temporary closure of fisheries, from 1 December 2020 until 31 March 2021 would prevent unnecessary deaths of this iconic and protected marine species.

“We are running against the clock. If we do not act now, thousands of protected dolphins will be killed in fishing nets in the coming months – again. Only the temporary closure of the fisheries responsible for the incidental catches can prevent another season of mass deaths that are both unnecessary and unwanted”, says Andrea Ripol, Fisheries Policy Officer at Seas At Risk. She adds: “Earlier this year the Commission promised to take emergency measures if needed [3], and now is the time to do so.”

Sarah Dolman, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says: “The European Commission urgently needs to adopt short-term emergency measures if it is to prevent dolphin deaths.  At the same time it must give France, Spain and other nations fishing in and around the Bay of Biscay the time to develop effective long-term measures to prevent bycatch of protected common dolphins.”

Sophie Mjati, France Nature Environnement, says: “Despite first announcing that they would close the fisheries responsible for common dolphin bycatch in the Bay of Biscay for six weeks this winter (during the national bycatch WG meeting in July 2020), France has now decided not to close the fisheries at all, citing a lack of scientific data. This, in fact, goes against ICES’s advice and Pelagis Observatory’s decades of work on this issue. Civil society is now urging the European Commission to take emergency measures and close the fisheries, as France is not capable of respecting its own laws or those of the EU and international conventions.”

“It is incredible that after the speech from the Commissioner early this year, and the commitment taken, we are having to ask for these important measures to be adopted. We fear that commitments undertaken in the biodiversity strategy are far from real action”, adds Eleonora Panella, Senior Campaigner at IFAW.

ClientEarth’s Wildlife and Habitats lawyer John Condon says: “France and Spain are already subject to legal action launched by the Commission for their failure to prevent bycatch. To stop this breach from being exacerbated, the Commission must urgently act to protect common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay.”

Dr Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy, WWF European Policy Office says: “Despite the EU infringement procedure launched by the European Commission last summer, France and Spain have failed to provide adequate mitigation measures to tackle the crisis of dolphin bycatch in the Bay of Biscay. As one of the main threats to marine mammals, already leading some of them to the brink of extinction, it’s time for the European Commission to impose emergency measures, including a fisheries closure this winter.”

“France cannot pretend that dolphins are a protected species and yet continue to allow hundreds of fishing boats with non-selective fishing methods to fish in the territory of the dolphins. We urgently need a fishing sector that is more respectful of the ocean and transparent about what is happening at sea. This is nowhere in sight!”, says Lamya Essemlali – President of Sea Shepherd France.

Ana Aldarias, Coordinator of Marine Issues at Ecologistas en Acción, says: “Spain is intervening very slowly to end the incidental capture of cetaceans in the Bay of Biscay, rather than taking the prompt action needed to save the dolphins. In light of the lack of meaningful action by Spain to date, we urge the European Commission to put in place emergency measures that will give time to Spain to coordinate with France to implement ambitious measures in the medium and long-term. This should be the first step in an integrated plan to end bycatch of all species in Spanish fisheries”.

Scientists estimate that over 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.

Like other cetaceans, dolphins are strictly protected in EU waters [4]. Member States are obliged to minimise and, where possible, eliminate their incidental catch of non-targeted species by their fisheries [5]. The measures implemented by French and Spanish fleets in the Bay of Biscay to date are woefully inadequate. This has already been recognised by the Commission, which recently took legal action against the Member States for not implementing laws to protect dolphins from bycatch [6].  Following this, the Commission submitted a request to Member States to submit joint recommendations to effectively address the incidental fisheries bycatch. However, this process is too slow and the proposed measures to date are inadequate, and France has refused to close its fisheries this winter [7].

Further to the NGOs’ call for the immediate and temporary closure of these fisheries, implementation of Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) is urgently required across the EU fishing fleet. This technology to monitor fishing activities is in line with the scientific advice issued by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which acknowledged that bycatch is the main threat to this dolphin population and has also recommended the winter closure of the fisheries responsible for bycatch in the Bay of Biscay. ICES’ advice follows a complaint by 26 NGOs [8] to the European Commission, asking it to initiate infringement proceedings against France and the 14 other European governments for failing in their obligation to protect cetaceans from harmful fisheries activities.

The addition of hundreds of scientists and conservationists calling for a global action to protect dolphins and other cetaceans from extinction [9], stressing the magnitude of the threat posed to cetaceans by fishing nets, means that any further delays to action are simply unacceptable.


[1] “EU request on emergency measures to prevent bycatch of common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and Baltic Proper harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) in the Northeast Atlantic”, ICES Special Request Advice Northeast Atlantic ecoregions, published 26 May 2020

[2] https://www.lejdd.fr/Politique/annick-girardin-ministre-de-la-mer-on-doit-proteger-les-dauphins-mais-on-narretera-pas-la-peche-3997584

[3] On 26 June 2020, during the round table on cetacean catches in fishing nets, organised by the European Commission, European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius saying: “In the absence of sufficient actions by Member States in this regions, the Commission will step in” and that “the Commission will have to act if there is no evidence of quick result coming out of the regionalisation process.”

[4] The species of the common dolphins is strictly protected under the Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora)  https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:31992L0043

[5] Regulation (EU) 2019/1241 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 June 2019 on the conservation of fisheries resources and the protection of marine ecosystems through technical measures; and Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy

[6] Nature and Fisheries: Commission urges FRANCE, SPAIN and SWEDEN to take action to reduce bycatch https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/inf_20_1212

[7] France fails to prevent thousands of dolphin deaths, challenging law and science https://seas-at-risk.org/16-fisheries/1106-france-fails-to-prevent-thousands-of-dolphin-deaths-challenging-law-and-science.html

[8] Seas at Risk, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, ClientEarth, Coalition Clean Baltic, Coastwatch Europe, Danish Society for Nature Conservation, Ecologistas en Acción, 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.

[9] BBC ‘Real and imminent’ extinction risk to whales https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54485407