Bycatch of cetaceans in the Mediterranean increased 30% between the end of the nineties and the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Oceana advocates the implementation of mitigation measures in Europe and in fisheries operated by European vessels.
Bycatch of marine mammals, sharks, sea turtles and marine birds constitutes a problem that affects fisheries worldwide. This bycatch occurs with a variety of gear, from trawling nets to longlines, gillnets or purse seines. While some strategies are successful in reducing the percentages of bycatch in certain areas, in other areas, the lack of regulations or effective control of fishing activities allows the continued bycatch of vulnerable species, such as the harbour porpoise, or species in danger of extinction, such as the leatherback turtle.
According to Ricardo Aguilar, Director of Research and Projects at Oceana Europe: “Few measures have been implemented in the EU to avoid the bycatch of these species and, even worse, the few regulations adopted have not been fully implemented due to a lack of control and supervision of the legislation.”
Concerning the Mediterranean, the ban established in 2002 for driftnets, a gear with a high percentage of bycatch of endangered species, has been continuously ignored by various member countries. It is estimated that driftnets kill 10,000 cetaceans annually in the Mediterranean. Despite the current ban, and although the number of illegal driftnetters in the EU fleet has decreased in recent years, some countries continue to harbour these vessels, allowing bycatch to continue. Other gear in this area, such as surface longlines used to capture swordfish, continue to catch between 20,000 to 30,000 sea turtles annually, but the EU and the implicated member states do not adopt measures to reduce this impact.
Other statistics should be added to these disturbing figures. For example, the European Environmental Agency estimates that the bycatch of cetaceans in the Mediterranean has increased almost 130% between the end of the decade of the nineties and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Workshops are being held in Rome¹, precisely this week, to deal with these issues.
These problems, extended to other types of gear, also exist in the North East Atlantic in Europe where, for example, gillnet fisheries (bottom gillnets) have reached such high indices of deep-sea shark bycatch that the fleet made these sharks their target species. Scientific reports compiled by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) catalogued some of these species as extinct in the area. Meanwhile, other species, such as the spurdog and the porbeagle, were being exploited through quotas, and were subsequently catalogued as "Critically Endangered” in the North East Atlantic by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The inclusion of these species in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species has recently been proposed in order to increase their protection. To date, only three European species of sharks are protected by the CMS: the great white shark, the whale shark and the basking shark. The photograph below shows fishermen throwing a dead basking shark back into the sea after a Spanish vessel caught it in the North East Atlantic.
There are, however, a variety of experiences around the world that prove the positive results of using technical conservation measures. These experiences prove that the collaboration of the fishing sector is very important, although it must be accompanied by corresponding policies and legislation.
An ICES report compiled this year highlighted the fact that some European regulations concerning the reduction in bycatch, such as the use of acoustic devices to deter marine mammals, were only supervised on a limited basis, indicating low levels of government implication when faced with these issues.
According to Xavier Pastor, Director of Oceana Europe: “The mitigation measures for bycatch of these species must be prioritised. While we debate over the quality of the information we have, the measures that are successful in other places are not implemented here. Although all the mechanisms may be improved, some, such as the use of round hooks on longlines to avoid catching turtles, could already be implemented and working, thus minimising the current problems. We have to advance towards the implementation of measures.”