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On the eve of a European Parliamentary vote (worryingly led by Spain), on the incidental capture and deaths of whales, dolphins and porpoises in fishing nets, a study released today by WDC has found that the Spanish fleet and government has flouted European law to report, monitor and prevent these deaths.

Incidental entanglement in fishing nets and gear, or bycatch, is the biggest global threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises, killing hundreds of thousands of individuals globally every year. This new report finds that many EU nations are ignoring the law protecting whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Spain has the largest fishing fleet in Europe and is leading attempts to further weaken the bycatch law (EC Regulation 812/2004).

According to the WDC study , the UK performs best across the EU but still thousands die around the UK in fishing gear, trapped in nets where they can’t breathe, some enduring terrible wounds and broken bones as they try to escape. When they can’t struggle any more, they will close their blowhole and suffocate.

WDC’s researchers looked at nine years of data from 2006 to 2014, from 15 Member States fishing in the North East Atlantic, North Sea and Baltic Sea, and showed that implementation of the Regulation has varied by Members States and also between years. Implementation by Spain, Finland and Sweden has been notably poor. Whilst some Member States have implemented the Regulation to a good extent, e.g. the Netherlands, only the UK has implemented their obligations fully.

WDC’s review shows clearly that, based on independent scientific evidence, the current bycatch Regulation is being flouted by most Member States, and is too weak to understand or reduce this serious problem. More than a decade after implementation of the Regulation, uncertainties remain in dolphin and porpoise populations and wholly inadequate fisheries monitoring and mitigation (such as the use of acoustic deterrent devices, ‘pingers’, or spatial measures) across the fishing fleets mean that bycatch rates could be higher than reported in some fisheries across Europe, causing individual and population-level impacts in all European seas.  

‘What this study shows is shocking. The UK is way above the others, but this is not a level playing field’, says WDC’s Dr Fiona Read, the report’s author. ‘The EU needs to strengthen not weaken bycatch protection measures. Better compliance measures are urgently required. Despite the repeated evidence and recent reviews by scientific experts, and the EU Commission itself, that monitoring and mitigation measures are not currently fit for purpose, we are gravely concerned that bycatch measures will not be improved and might actually be weakened when MEPs vote next week’.

‘Member States should be compelled to comply with the Regulation and implement any future measures that replace the Regulation in an effort to continually reduce bycatch and stop these amazing creatures suffering in their thousands, putting both individuals and a number of populations of porpoises and dolphins at risk.’