Gillnets and entangling nets are the main causes of deaths of our native harbor porpoises. It is estimated that in the Danish fisheries in the North Sea alone as many as 5,500 to 5,800 died a cruel death as by-catch each year between 1987 and 2001.
However, many countries have not provided any current figures or the official statistics include only reported dead animals, while there are many strandings of harbor porpoises with clear net marks that go unreported. The incidental catch in fishing gear is still the main cause of deaths of harbor porpoises.
High time for improvements
It is a paradox thing that set gillnets are still allowed in protected areas for harbor porpoises, even in the whale sanctuary off the island of Sylt. It is true that fishing is restricted to "trawling to catch fish for direct sustenance (consumption fishing), the catch with gear other than driftnets and set gillnets whose extended distance between the ground rope and the float line does not exceed 2 m."
However, by the current state of scientific knowledge the set gillnet fishery is the main risk to harbor porpoises, and the cetaceans also die in low nets as by-catch.
Moreover, these restrictions apply exclusively to German fishing vessels, they do not apply to Danish fishing vessels, since they come within the jurisdiction of the EU according to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
We demand: No set gillnets in protected areas!
The European Habitats Directive, which was adopted 20 years ago, also provides a wonderful framework and good guidelines for the protection of marine mammals and marine ecosystems if strictly interpreted.
However, there is a lack of implementation. Although several areas in the North and Baltic Seas have been designated as protected areas under the Habitats Directive, management plans are lacking.
There are no restrictions on destructive fishing techniques such as bottom trawling or set gillnets, which claim the lives of harbor porpoises and thousands of seabirds. Germany has not yet submitted any conservation regulations with the EU Commission.
GRD supports a ban of set gillnets in protected areas and consistent fulfillment of the obligations in terms of nature and species conservation pursuant to the Habitats Directive, which is also supported by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation
Better protection for the harbor porpoise nursery grounds
The failure to effectively protect the only cetacean species that regularly occurs in German waters is illustrated by the example of the outer reef of the island of Sylt. Here, the harbor porpoise density is highest in summer just after the births of the young ones at the inner edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
However, our whale sanctuary does not reach that far, but only extends up to the 12-mile zone.
The considerably larger site called "Sylter Aussenriff" protected under the Habitats Directive could ensure much better additional protection. However, corresponding regulations regarding protective areas have not yet been established.
The Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection must finally fulfill its obligation to submit management plans with due regard to species’ conservation needs to the EU, which in GRD’s view could for example include at least a ban of set gillnets and other forms of harmful human exploitation.
After adoption of appropriate protection acts the Federal Government must put pressure on the EU Commission to ensure that the strict regulations applying to German vessels are expanded to include fishing vessels from all EU member states to meet their obligations pursuant to the Habitats Directive.
This is what we expect the Federal Government to do if they are serious about marine conservation and the protection of biodiversity!
Pingers deter harbor porpoises
Pingers are acoustic devices that are fixed to fishing nets and emit sounds to warn harbor porpoises. In areas protected under the Habitats Directive pingers do not meet the requirements set out in said Directive for special areas of conservation (SACs)! Pingers deter harbor porpoises. The use of pingers is obligatory for specific set gillnet fishing vessels during specific periods and in specific areas in the North Sea.
While their use can reduce the by-catch of harbor porpoises, this is nothing more than replacing one evil with another: because if many nets are set in an area the large-scale use of innumerable pingers will drive the marine mammals out of their habitats! Irrespective thereof, pingers require intensive maintenance which cannot always be ensured. As a consequence the devices may fail.
Extinct in the Baltic Sea
Extinct – this may soon be the fate of a harbor porpoise population in the Baltic Sea which genetically differs from the rest of the Baltic Sea populations and consists of only a few hundred individuals. Only strict measures such as a total ban of fishing nets and a designated protected area might prevent this population’s extinction.
The Federal Government must act now!
Marine protected areas must offer true protection and allow endangered species to recover. Together with many other conservation organizations GRD has asked the ministers in charge, Peter Altmaier and Ilse Aigner, and Chancellor Angela Merkel to adopt effective protective measures in the areas protected under the Habitats Directive in the North and Baltic Seas and to submit those to the EU.
As regards the protected areas for harbor porpoises this translates into a ban of set gillnets and the promotion of using and developing alternative, sustainable fishing techniques.
The use of pingers in protected areas acoustically deters the animals and is no option, but even violates established EU law if properly interpreted.