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New Project Will Tackle Whale Entanglement

By Cat Lazaroff

BOSTON, Massachusetts, July 24, 2002 (ENS)

Almost 60,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed each year worldwide by entanglement with fishing nets, a coalition of the world's leading cetacean scientists reported Tuesday. The scientists have agreed to form a global response team, the Cetacean Bycatch Action Network, to assist governments and fishers in finding solutions to the problem.

This porpoise is one of an estimated 60,000 cetaceans killed each year after becoming entangled in fishing gear.

(Photo courtesy Cetacean Bycatch Action Network)

The scientists, meeting at the New England
Aquarium in conjunction with the regional
meeting of the U.S. Commission on Ocean
Policy, released new research detailing the impact
that unintentional bycatch by fishing vessels
has on the world's 80 or so species of whales,
dolphins and porpoises - classified together as
"The numbers are staggering: my research
estimates that at least 150 whales and dolphins
die each day after being accidentally caught in
commercial fisheries," said Dr. Andy Read of the Duke University Marine Laboratory, co-chair of the new Cetacean Bycatch Action Network.

In January, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) convened a summit of the world's leading cetacean experts in Annapolis, Maryland, attended by 25 scientists from six continents. The group concluded that the single biggest threat facing cetaceans worldwide is death as bycatch in fishing gear.

Bycatch is the fishing industry's term for the capture of non-target species in fishing gear. Besides cetaceans and other marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds and non-commercial fish species also are regularly caught and killed unintentionally as bycatch.

This Irrawaddy dolphin died after becoming entangled with fishing gear. Fewer than 50 individuals of this species still live in waters off the Philippines.

(Photo courtesy Cetacean Bycatch Action Network)

The estimated number of cetaceans lost to bycatch is
almost triple the average annual commercial catch
of whales during the 20th century - about 21,470 a year
- a rate of hunting that caused severe declines In
almost all large whale species. While a global
moratorium on commercial whaling went into
effect in 1986, bycatch of
cetaceans continues unabated in much of the world.
"There are effective solutions being used by
some fishermen around the world, but more
action is needed to apply those
lessons learned to other fisheries," said Read.

Read and the other 25 scientists involved in the January meeting announced Tuesday that they

are forming a rapid response network to help governments, conservation organizations and fishers work together to address bycatch. The Cetacean Bycatch Action Network will work to find solutions to cetacean entanglement that work for individual fisheries.

"This is the first coordinated effort by the world's experts to tackle the global problem of death from entanglement, the number one killer of whales and dolphins," said William Reilly, chair of the board of WWF and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the presidency of George H.W. Bush.

"Because of the urgent need for action, World Wildlife Fund has now made this one of its priorities for our marine conservation work," Reilly added.

A dead pilot whale on the deck of a fishing vessel.

(Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service)

Some species of cetaceans have already been
pushed to the brink of extinction by bycatch.
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
- cannot afford these losses.
Solving the vaquita's problem will not be easy,
but the scientists at Tuesday's press conference
said it should be possible.

"My experience working with fishermen to reduce harbor porpoise bycatch in New England is a good illustration of the challenges and opportunities the network will face," said Scott Kraus, director of research at the New England Aquarium and a member of the new action network.

In the Gulf of Maine during the 1990s, bycatch of harbor porpoise in gillnets was so severe that federal officials were considering placing the population on the endangered species list. A combination of techniques, including use of pingers, temporary fisheries closures and placement of observers on fishing boats, reduced mortality by about 77 percent in just the first year of implementation in 1999, preventing the need for additional federal protection for the species.

"Generally, fishermen want to avoid bycatch for economic reasons, so reducing bycatch is a win-win situation for fishermen and cetaceans," Kraus explained. "But one size fits all solutions will not work and our network is committed to working toward solutions for individual fisheries."