Thousands of Porpoises Lost in UK’s “Haul of Shame”
LONDON, United Kingdom, July 18, 2000 (ENS) - Europe’s harbour
porpoises are dying by the thousand and may not live to see another
century if fishing practices are not changed, says a report released by
the world’s largest animal welfare agency.
The RSPCA believes thousands of harbour porpoises are dying agonizing
deaths in fishing nets around UK coasts each year. (Photo by Mark
Ruglys, courtesy RSPCA Wild Images Ltd.)
The Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has
released a report entitled “Haul of Shame” in the United Kingdom. It
claims as many as 20,000 porpoises could have died off the United
Kingdom’s coasts in the last six years.
The RSPCA, Great Britain’s largest animal welfare organization is
calling on the government and other European fishing nations to take
The harbour porpoise is the UK’s smallest cetecean, a collective term
for whales, dolphins and porpoises. Harbour porpoises are smaller than
their dolphin cousins and feed on small fish near the sea floor. This
feeding habit brings them into contact with bottom set gill nets -
fishing nets set on the seabed.
As mammals needing to breathe oxygen, porpoises can struggle for up to
four minutes entangled in these bottom set gill nets, suffering cuts and
bruises as the nets slice into their skin. Some suffer broken teeth and
jaws before they run out of oxygen and die.
“The government has known about the unacceptable level of deaths and
suffering for six years and yet it has failed to introduce practical
measures to reduce the death toll,” said RSPCA marine wildlife
consultant Helen McLachlan. “Although the government has commissioned
research into the problem it has failed to introduce the changes in
fishing practices which are sorely needed.”
An RSPCA study carried out in 1994 estimated that around 2,200 porpoises
were killed each year in nets set in the Celtic Sea to the southwest of
the UK. At those levels the slow breeding harbour porpoises could
disappear from the area by the end of the century.
In the North Sea, the RSPCA believes that around 7,000 porpoises are
killed in Danish nets and about 2,000 to 3,000 die in UK and Irish nets
each year. Germany, France and Sweden have bottom set gill net
The RSPCA wants the governments of these countries to take action to
reduce the numbers of porpoises caught.
The RSPCA suggests closing areas or implementing seasonal fishing, as
well as modifying fishing gear. The group will be reinforcing that
message at the third Meeting of the Parties to the Agreement on the
Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS),
which takes place in the seaside city of Bristol, UK, from July 26 to
Responding to the RSPCA’s report today in London, Fisheries Minister
Elliot Morley said that the government will table its Harbour Porpoise
Conservation Strategy at the ASCOBANS meeting. Under the strategy, the
government intends to protect the species not only from fisheries but
pollution, seismic and other disturbances.
Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley. (Photo courtesy Ministry of
Agriculture Fisheries and Food)
“The UK has already taken the lead in the Council of Ministers to
provide protection for dolphins, turtles and other creatures by securing
a ban from December 31, 2001 on the use of long drift nets,” said
“We take our responsibilities under ASCOBANS just as seriously. We look
to that meeting to
start the process whereby all signatories start to work together to find
effective ways of reducing the bycatch of small cetaceans,” he said.
“Unfortunately there is no single, simple solution to the problem. That
is why we have been carrying out, with the help of the fishing industry
over a number years, research to try to identify why and where bycatches
happen and how these problems might be overcome through the adaptation
of fishing practices,” the minister said.
Starting this month, the UK’s Sea Mammal Research Unit will undertake a
three year, fisheries ministry funded project which will examine why
harbour porpoises become entangled in gill nets. It will liaise with the
fishermen involved, and suggest gear modifications capable of reducing
This follows work done under European Union contract to explore the
possibility of using acoustic devices known as “pingers” to deter
porpoises from nets, as well as other gear modifications like air filled
floating headropes and reducing the length of time the nets are left in
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