French court decision will save thousands of common dolphins from dying in fishing nets

Thanks to a welcome French court decision, thousands of common dolphins in the Bay of Biscay will be saved from entanglement and death in fishing gear.

Scientists estimate that more than 10,000 common dolphins are killed in the Bay of Biscay every year due to harmful fishing activities, with peak deaths and strandings occurring each winter between December and March.

France has repeatedly failed to introduce robust measures to prevent these deaths, despite being legally obliged to do so.

Fortunately, the State Council (France’s top administrative court) ruled on Monday that current measures in place to prevent common dolphins getting caught in fishing gear in the region are inadequate and now requires the establishment of no-fishing zones to protect dolphins in the Bay of Biscay. The case was brought by Sea Shepherd France, France Nature Environment and Defense of Aquatic Environment and we congratulate them.

This is great news for common dolphins and EIA is proud to have led the important groundwork that brought us to this point.

With colleagues at Whale and Dolphin Conservation and Humane Society International, we were at the forefront of a public-facing campaign to bring attention to the issue of whales, dolphins and porpoises (collectively known at cetaceans) being killed in nets set for fish (also known as bycatch) to EU Parliamentarians in the lead up to an important vote on cetacean bycatch measures.

We provided detailed comments on a report by the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries (PECH) and also on the European Commission’s proposal for a new Regulation which was to include cetacean bycatch measures, clearly laying out all the solutions in an EU cetacean bycatch ‘Action Plan’.

Bay of Biscay, France

A coalition of European NGOs submitted an Emergency Measures request calling for immediate fisheries closures in Biscay to prevent common dolphin bycatch.

This led to a European Commission request to its scientific experts at the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) to provide special advice on this issue; in turn, ICES bycatch scientists advised the Commission in 2020 that the temporary closure of fisheries was required to reduce common dolphin bycatch in the French and Spanish fleets in the Bay of Biscay during winter months and to prevent population-level impacts.

ICES also advised that long-term measures were required, advice it updated in 2023.

As a result of these actions, the Commission began infringement proceedings against France (and Spain) in July 2020 and asked member states to submit joint recommendations to effectively address cetacean bycatch.

This process has repeatedly stalled since and the proposed joint recommendation measures have been wholly inadequate.

Last month, the Commission produced a fisheries action plan which, among other things, called on member states to adopt measures to minimise common dolphin bycatch in the Bay of Biscay by the end of 2023. This latest court decision will undoubtedly aid progress towards this end.

The court decision should also help to ensure that the French Government can meet the requirements of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act Import Provision Rule. To meet the requirements of this US law, France must ensure there are no population-level impact resulting from marine mammal bycatch associated with fish products exported to the US.

Dead dolphin washed up on a French beach

All cetaceans are strictly protected in EU waters. Despite this, cetacean bycatch has been a major conservation and welfare concern throughout European waters for decades, with high and likely unsustainable numbers of harbour porpoises, dolphins and whales continuing to die each year.

Common dolphins in the north-east Atlantic are widespread and the population is large. However, the bycatch level is very high throughout the region and particularly in the Bay of Biscay, where bycatch levels are so high that it is impacting the entire population.

Different kinds of fishing gears are used in the Bay of Biscay and collectively they contribute to the bycatch toll; pair trawls, trawlers and gillnets have particularly high levels of bycatch.

Governments in France and the world over implement poor fisheries management measures. Fisheries management must include early, effective long-term measures to protect cetaceans and other sensitive species from bycatch.

The issue in Biscay is acute, as it is in other regions of Europe. Fisheries closures happen due to a lack of adequate action.

European governments have much more to do to continually reduce common dolphin bycatch, as well as the bycatch of all other sensitive species in their waters, towards zero. This court decision takes us a step in the right direction.