Dolphins become collateral victims of fishing

Every winter, thousands of cetaceans die in boat nets. The measures taken are not enough to avoid a massacre. The NGO Sea Shepherd patrols the Atlantic to alert public opinion.

“It’s impossible to film, we don’t see anything,” sighs Salome, a videographer from the NGO Sea Shepherd. On a dark night in the Bay of Biscay, this 24-year-old volunteer, along with about thirty other people, participates in Operation Dolphin Bycatch. Every winter since 2018, the crew goes to Sam Simon bring back images of dolphins caught in fishing nets. Target ? Warn the public about these random shots. That night, like many others, they approach the gillnets and trawlers, to the chagrin of the fishermen, who blind the crew with a lamp to keep them from filming. “Fortunately, someone gave us permission to look,” adds Kerstin, the ship’s foreman. Sam Simonin charge of keeping the zodiac at a safe distance so that Salome can film the dragging of nets.

Despite numerous outings, the team captured only a few shots of captured dolphins. However, in the winter of 2020-2021, 756 cetaceans washed up on the coast of France, including many dolphins. This is a 30% decrease in strandings compared to 2018-2019, according to the National Marine Fisheries Committee. Diminishing trompe-l’oeil: “on the Atlantic coast the winds often blow from the west and push the carcasses ashore; this was not the case in 2021, when there were many northerly winds,” explains Olivier Van Canneit, a biologist at the Pelagis Observatory. This division of the CNRS, based in La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime), is responsible for monitoring the status of marine mammals. Its scientists have been warning about losses since 2017. For the 700 cetaceans washed ashore, many more perished and sank in the open sea, estimated at several thousand annually. “A tax of this magnitude cannot be sustainable in the long term,” said Vincent Ridou, a researcher at the observatory. “Dolphins are very vulnerable because, being at the top of the food chain, they should not be prey,” explains Lamia Essemlaly, president of Sea Shepherd France. The species recovers very poorly from such mortality. »

The European Commission called on France to order

If some strandings are due to pollution or boat collisions, fishing remains the main culprit. “Among the beached dolphins, many have lost their tails because fishermen cut off their tails to pull them out of the net. The cetaceans die there from suffocation, so we can see lesions in their lungs. They also have undigested fish in their stomachs because they have been feeding frequently,” explains Vincent Ridoux. About 70% of cetaceans die as a result of accidental captures. Winter is the main cause of death for common dolphins. »

During this period, fishermen track down hake, perch and cod, which feed on small fish – sardines, anchovies – which cetaceans also love. They all end in the same place. Olivier Van Cannet elaborates: “The number of strands has increased dramatically in five years. We thought it was due to an increase in fishing effort, but it has decreased slightly. In fact, Gulf dolphins feed more on fishing grounds, and scientists don’t know why.

Every day, tens of kilometers of nets laid in the sea turn the ocean into a labyrinth for cetaceans. Eric Guignec, a former sailor and manager of Apak (the Lorient shipping company with seven trawlers), agrees with the observation: “I don’t want to walk on the beach with my children and grandchildren and see dolphins washed ashore, that’s not possible. We must understand what is happening. »

What to do ? Scientists, fishermen and politicians are unable to solve this riddle. Maritime Minister Annick Girardin refused to set the local fishery closure for the winter of 2021-2022 recommended by the researchers: “We record mortality all year round, but three-quarters are from mid-January to mid-March. remembers Vincent Ridou. The immediate solution is to stop during these two months those gears that are mainly responsible for the catch. The proposal was criticized by the fishermen, who clearly do not want to stop working. In October 2021, the European Commission asked France for the second time to temporarily close certain fishing areas. The lawsuit, backed by France Nature Environment and Sea Shepherd, has filed appeals with the Council of State, accusing the government of not protecting dolphins. The request was denied in December.

Installing acoustic repellents is not enough

Other solutions have been devised, such as putting pingers (acoustic repellents) on trawlers, but Lamia Essemlali is far from enough: “We’re not going to stop dolphin capture by spreading pingers on fishing boats. . Mandatory for all French pelagic trawlers from January 1, 2021, this device makes an unbearable noise for dolphins to keep them away from the nets. The idea seems to be a good one: “Catch rates with and without pingers were compared on three pairs of vessels, resulting in a reduction of 66%,” notes Vincent Ridoux. But these results, measured on only a few trawlers, are unreliable. In addition, gill nets are not equipped – their nets can indeed reach several kilometers in length. In addition, pingers pose a danger to dolphins: “the sound they make is superior to that of a protected species,” explains Lamya Essemlali. They also risk driving the animals away from the feeding area.

The maritime ministry has taken on other obligations: announcement of catches by fishermen, installation of cameras… Useful measures to communicate information, but, unfortunately, they are taken lightly: according to a 2004 European directive, fishermen must take scientific observers on board. in 5% of days at sea, all fishing boats combined, but “three-quarters missed”, Vincent Ridoux regrets.

In Australia, if a fisherman catches too many dolphins, he will stay on the pier.

From January 1, 2019, fishermen must also report their random catches. However, during the winter of 2020-2021, Minmore received only 84 declarations, which is far from the results of scientists. Not all fishermen object to this. “You have to be transparent,” says Eric Guignec. Declaring catches, bringing observers on board… At first it was very troublesome at the administrative level for the fishermen, but now it has become easier, it is no longer a problem. »

“This sector operates in complete opacity,” laments Lamia Essemlali of Sea Shepherd. First, this opacity needs to be eliminated, in particular thanks to forced cameras. Today, only a few boats have them. This is always done on a voluntary basis, which distorts the measurements. In France, these camera controls play an informative role, unlike in Australia, where a fisherman who catches too many dolphins in a certain period of time is required to stay on the pier.

Eric Guignec is working with Ifremer on new projects, in particular the smart grid (called trawl game) equipped with cameras, software and analytics to sort desired fish and by-catch on the seabed rather than on deck. “I prefer to work by putting the camera online and taking what I need, I win everything,” he adds.

Pending more effective action, Sea Shepherd has resumed its dolphin capture campaign this winter to continue documenting these accidental captures. “We operate on the principle that if we cannot win this battle, we will not save the ocean,” concludes Lamya Essemlali.

Read also:

> Terrifying sound captured by freediver Guillaume Néry at the bottom of the sea!

> Overfishing threatens species

> What other species can we catch?

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