More than 1,000 dolphins wash up in France this year with devastating injuries: 'There’s never been a number this high'

Industrial fishing nets blamed for 90% of deaths but massive spike in numbers remains mystery

Tom Embury-Dennis
Friday 29 March 2019 14:29 GMT
French fishing vessels capture and fatally wound up to 10000 dolphins a year

More than 1,000 dolphins, many with their fins cut off, have washed up on France's Atlantic coast so far this year.

Scientists say 90 per cent of the fatalities result from the highly intelligent mammals being caught in industrial fishing nets.

But the 1,100 found since January is already higher than the entirety of 2018, which was itself the highest year in four decades. The reason for the spike remains a mystery.

“There’s never been a number this high,” said Willy Daubin, a member of La Rochelle University’s National Center for Scientific Research.

The mass deaths have alarmed animal welfare groups and prompted France’s ecology minister to launch a national plan to protect them.

“What fishing machinery or equipment is behind all these deaths?” Mr Daubin asked.

Autopsies carried out on the dolphins this year by La Rochelle's research centre show extreme levels of mutilation.

Activists say it is common for fishermen to cut body parts off the suffocated dolphins after they are pulled up on the nets, to save the nets.

French ecology minister Francois de Rugy travelled to La Rochelle last week to work on strategies to lower the number of dolphins dying as a result of humans. He is under pressure, partly due to French president Emmanuel Macron’s pro-ecology stance and oft-quoted slogan to “Make the Planet Great Again".

Mr Rugy is considering bolstering research into existing acoustic repellent devices in place in 26 two-vessel trawlers off the Bay of Biscay, an industrial fishing hub in the Atlantic Ocean.

When activated, the devices send unpleasant signals to nearby dolphins that cause them to swim away.

But animal rights group Sea Shepherd said his measures do not go far enough, and has already decried the acoustic repellents as “useless".

It claims many of the trawlers they watch in the region keep the repellent devices turned off, fearing they will scare off valuable fish as well, and only turn them on if they are being checked by fishing monitors.

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It also said increasing the number of repellent devices is not a long-term solution, since that makes the oceans an uninhabitable drum of noise pollution for all mammals and fish.

“The government needs to take responsibility and act – especially Macron, who said he wanted to protect ecology,” said Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France.

She cited scientists who predict the current rates of fishing will likely drive the dolphin population to extinction.

“The spotlight has been put on the trawlers that fish for sea bass ... which is a scandal. But they were not the only ones responsible,” she said.

She suggested aggressive hake fishing, which was given the green light three years ago after a long ban, was a major factor. The spike in dolphin deaths also began three years ago.

Her group says the ecological crisis stems from unprecedented demand for low-cost fish.

“Right now, the sea bass that is being caught by the trawlers that kill dolphins you can find on the French market for 8 euros per kilogram ($4 per pound),” she said.

Global seafood consumption has more than doubled in the past 50 years, according to the European Commission, a rate that rights groups have branded unsustainable.

Additional reporting by AP

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