Dolphins die in trawler nets

Feature story - 26 January, 2004
Torn fins, lacerated flanks, broken beaks, a slow death by drowning and being washed ashore. This is the fate of thousands of dolphins in some north Atlantic fisheries during the winter. Why? All as unnecessary and avoidable by-catch of the fishing methods used to produce fish for the dinner tables of the UK, France and other European countries.

Child studies a dead Common Dolphin washed up on beach in the west of England. It is estimated about 4000 dolphins and porpoises per year may die in mid water trawl fishing nets in this region, which is 5 percent of the population.

Every winter hundreds of dead dolphins and porpoises wash up on British and French beaches. Many have obvious injuries - broken beaks, torn flippers, bruising, and lacerations that tell the story of a prolonged death in fishing nets. The bodies of thousands of others never wash up and are claimed by the ocean.

The main culprit for the deaths is a fishing method called pair trawling most often used to catch sea bass during the winter. Huge nets (some can hold 10 jumbo jets) are towed in mid water at high speed by two fishing boats to catch fish such as sea bass, mackerel, horse mackerel, hake and in summer albacore tuna. However these fish are also the food of common dolphins and Atlantic white-sided dolphins in particular, but also bottlenose dolphins and long-finned pilot whales. These species are caught accidentally in the same nets and dragged to their death.

Observers of pair trawling in 2001 saw 53 dolphins killed in 116 hauls of the net; with two Irish boats in 1999, 145 dolphins were killed in 313 hauls, with 30 animals being killed by one single haul of the net. There are hundreds of boats in the whole EU fleet mainly from UK, France, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

Out of Sight

Imagine if such a death toll and suffering was inflicted on wildlife on land by an agricultural practice. There would be such outrage that it would have been banned long ago, if it was even allowed to begin in the first place. Because these deaths are taking place far out at sea it's another case of out of site out of mind.

We are setting sail with the largest ship in our fleet, the Esperanza to document and observe the pair trawl fishery and the by-catch problem. It is an urgent issue because estimates of the current death toll could mean several species becoming locally extinct within the next few years.

Worldwide, trawling and other forms of destructive and unsustainable fishing are the biggest threat to marine life. Millions of unwanted fish species, birds, turtles, sharks and dolphins die in fishing nets and lines every year. A quarter of everything caught is thrown back into the sea dead.

In addition to dolphin by catch in trawl nets, thousands of porpoises around the UK are also being killed each year by fixed fishing nets set on the seabed. Around 6,000 harbour porpoises have been caught annually in recent years.

EU states are obliged to protect dolphins and porpoises, known collectively as cetaceans. Under the Habitats Directive the UK and other member states must monitor cetacean by catch and ensure that fishing does not have a negative effect.


At present the EU is considering a new regulation to attempt to address the issue of by-catch. The regulation proposes observers on trawlers but contains no proposals for taking action to actually protect dolphins. The regulation also proposes acoustic deterrents (pingers) on set nets but there is controversy over whether these would be effective. Whilst we broadly welcome such a proposal it is clear that the measures proposed will not significantly reduce dolphin deaths in fishing nets. It is crucial that any legislation adopted commits governments to take action against fisheries identified as responsible for dolphin deaths.

Take action:

Help pressure the UK Fisheries Minister to act on this issue.

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More Info:

Learn about pair trawling and by catch with our interactive guides.

Related video:

Dolphins condemned by pair trawling:

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