Washington - Nearly 1,000 whales dolphins and porpoises (classified scientifically as cetaceans) drown every day when they become entangled in fishing gear, according to a new study submitted to the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Researchers from the United States and United Kingdom estimate that approximately 308,000 cetaceans are unintentionally drowned this way each year.
The research, conducted at the Duke University Marine Laboratory and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, is the first global estimate ever done of cetacean deaths from entanglement in fishing gear, also known as bycatch. Scientists believe that death in fishing gear is the leading threat to the survival of the world's 80-plus species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
"This level of bycatch is no doubt significantly depleting and disrupting many populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises," said lead researcher Andy Read of Duke University, who is co-chair of World Wildlife Fund's Cetacean Bycatch Task Force. "Several species will be lost in the next few decades if nothing is done."
WWF is calling on delegates to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Berlin, June 16-20, to support a resolution on cetacean entanglement deaths that would make the issue a priority for the commission and encourage member governments to provide funding for research and strategies to reduce the problem.
In the few places where concerted efforts have been taken to reduce cetacean bycatch, the efforts have been successful and affordable. In U.S. fisheries, for example, cetacean bycatch has been reduced by nearly two-thirds in the past decade.
"Solutions to cetacean bycatch are out there," said Karen Baragona, deputy director of WWF's Species Conservation program, "but to tackle the problem on a global scale, we need to boost political will, increase funding for research on cetacean-friendly ways of fishing, and tap into the creativity of fishermen--so that whales and dolphins are protected and fishermen can keep earning a living."
Unintentional death of whales and dolphins in fishing gear is pushing some cetacean species to the brink of extinction. In Mexico's Gulf of California, for example, up to 15 percent of the critically endangered vaquita population is killed every year in fishing nets. With a population of only around 500, the small porpoise - found nowhere else on Earth - is being decimated by bycatch. Whales and dolphins can become entangled in commonly used fishing gear like gillnets, tangle nets, trammel nets, trawl nets and long lines. Solutions to the problem of entanglement vary by region and species involved, but can include adding gillnet floats that break away when hit by a whale, acoustic "pingers" that warn marine mammals away from nets and buoy lines that are less likely to snare whales and dolphins. Fishermen have been crucial in developing these successful gear modifications, the scientists noted.
Formed last year, WWF's International Cetacean Bycatch Task Force includes 27 leading bycatch experts from 6 continents. The group works closely with WWF to solve the global bycatch problem, including conducting research and training in places with the most severe bycatch problems, working with fishermen to find more cetacean-safe ways of fishing, and pushing for more attention and resources for reducing bycatch of whales, dolphins and porpoises in international policy arenas such as the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization.
WWF works throughout the world to reduce cetacean bycatch. In the Gulf of California in Mexico, WWF leads a coalition of local and international organizations who are working with the Mexican government to phase out gillnet fishing in the area. In the fall of 2002, WWF helped initiate a ban on large mesh-size gillnets as the first step towards a proposed phase-out.
WWF has made reducing cetacean bycatch a priority of its Ocean Rescue initiative, acting as the global leader in safeguarding marine ecosystems and working to end destructive fishing practices, stop illegal trade in marine wildlife and reduce pollution on land and sea. WWF's Ocean Rescue also promotes innovative market incentives for responsible fishing and works to reform government policies that undermine the ocean's web of life.