Bycatches of small cetaceans in the Celtic sea fisheries have concerned us for years, but it has been very hard to get any hard information about the true extent of the problem. Increasing numbers of dead dolphins have been washing ashore all along the Atlantic coast in recent years – several hundred this February alone on the beaches of Cornwall and Britanny – but we don’t see so many in Ireland due to the nature of the coastline and also because many bodies sink at sea. Many of the bodies which do come ashore show signs of entanglement in nets or are mutilated having been cut free.
Through the 1990’s it was drift nets which were doing the most dramatic ecological damage to our marine environment, but thanks to EU regulations, these have now been phased out, at long last. Instead it seems that Bord Iascaigh Mhara is looking to replace them with mid-water pair trawls, which may be an equally destructive form of fishing as far as dolphin bycatch is concerned. This is the same technique which is killing hundreds of dolphins in the sea bass fishery off France. We were horrified to learn that the trials which BIM recently carried out into the ‘diversification’ of fishing techniques in the albacore tuna fishery recorded 145 small cetacean deaths from only 4 pairs of trawlers in one season. Even more alarming is the news that BIM apparently considers this to be a success, as its report declares pelagic pair trawling to be a “viable alternative” to drift netting. The lack of serious effort which has been made to avoid cetacean bycatches is shown by the comment in the report that “some incidental catches of cetaceans in this fishery … would seem inevitable”. We don’t accept that statement. If you can’t be bothered to look out for dolphins before setting a trawl, all you have to do is throw a hydrophone (underwater microphone, costing about €150) into the water and you can hear them coming from a range of a kilometre or more. In the Baltic, they use sonar pingers to alert harbour porpoises to the presence of nets. In New Zealand, they simply ban fishing in areas known to be home to high concentrations of dolphins. Even the much-derided Spaniards, who have been sustainably fishing albacore tuna for generations, use only long-lines, a technique not without its problems admittedly, but at least it doesn’t kill small cetaceans. In the UK, hardly a country noted for operating a sustainable fishing industry, trials are starting this month of a modified design of pair trawl which should allow dolphins and porpoises to escape entanglement. If it fails to work, pair trawling could be banned in British waters.
Irish waters out to the 200-mile limit were declared a whale and dolphin sanctuary by the government in 1991. It is supposedly illegal to injure or even harass small cetaceans within this area, never mind haul them in 30 at a time in tuna nets. It’s high time we took our responsibilities to the marine environment and its flagship mammals a bit more seriously, before it’s too late. At the moment we don’t even know how bad the problem is. We have only the haziest idea of how large the populations of small cetaceans in the Celtic Sea area are, and we don’t know whether they can tolerate the scale of additional losses proposed by the fishing industry, so soon after the depletion caused by the drift netting. Until we have independent monitors on board Irish fishing vessels there will be no way of telling what the real level of bycatch is, but the reluctance of the industry to accept this certainly does not encourage us to believe that it is a trivial issue.
Fishermen need to earn a living, and as a country we should be proud of our relatively clean environment and its ability to produce healthy food for export and home consumption. At irishdolphins.com, we don’t see any need for conflict between these requirements and the desire to protect dolphins and small cetaceans from being massacred. All it takes is a bit more imagination.
1. Diversification trials with alternative tuna fishing techniques including the use of remote sensing technology. Final Report to the Commission of the European Communities Directorate General for Fisheries. EU contract No. 98/010. Bord Iascaigh Mhara. Irish Sea Fisheries Board.