More common dolphins have washed up dead on France’s Atlantic Coast since January than in all of 2017 or 2018. Scientists blame fishing. Fishermen are pushing back.
LA ROCHELLE, France — At dawn on a recent Saturday, the crew of the fishing trawler L’Arlequin II pulled their cone-shaped net up from the Bay of Biscay, and found the usual catch crammed into the bottom: hundreds of bass.
And the bodies of two dead dolphins.
Such scenes have become far too common: A record 1,200 dolphins have washed up on France’s Atlantic coast since January, most of them with wounds suggesting that the mammals had died after being trapped in fishing nets.
For every carcass that ends up on a beach, several more decay at sea, wildlife biologists say, which suggests that as many as 6,000 of the 200,000 common dolphins living in the bay may have perished in less than four months because of fishing.
So a disturbing question hangs over the port cities that dot the coastline from Brittany to the Basque Country, and their hundreds of fishing vessels, with no clear answer.
Why are so many dolphins dying now?
Most people agree that fishing is responsible, but the consensus stops there. Fishermen claim that the unintentional captures, also known as bycatch, remain unusual, if not exceptional, while scientists warn that fishing vessels now represent a major threat to dolphins.
Activists from an environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, have just completed a two-month effort to document the deaths and which vessels cause them.
“It’s an undocumented reality that has been unfolding far out to sea, and far from the public eye,” Justin Barbati, a 27-year-old volunteer with the group, said as he drove an inflatable boat closer to L’Arlequin II, where fishermen were dragging the dolphins’ bodies aboard.
That new presence leaves local fishermen feeling unfairly targeted.
“That Sea Shepherd fights against whale hunters in Japan, fine, but that they follow us while we are working and harass us, the small and decent fishermen, because some of us sometimes catch some dolphins? It’s out of proportion,” said Jean Lagarde, 75, known as La Rochelle’s oldest fisherman, as he cleaned black cuttlefish ink from his vessel on a recent afternoon.
The Bay of Biscay, the vast gulf west of France and north of Spain, has long been a haven for dolphins, brimming with shoals of sardines, herring and other fish that they eat.
Fishermen have historically cohabited with dolphins. Lately, they say, they have seen so many more that most of them don’t have to go back far in the photo libraries in their smartphone to play videos of dolphins swirling around their vessels.
Biologists at the government-funded Pelagis Observatory in La Rochelle first noticed a spike in dolphins washing up on beaches in 2017, when 1,200 of them were found dead on the French coast, followed by 900 more in 2018.
In the first four months of this year, the number already exceeds annual totals that were among the highest in 40 years, said Olivier Van Canneyt, who runs the observatory.
Autopsies carried out by Mr. Van Canneyt’s team have attributed 90 percent of dolphins’ deaths to fishing activities. They found that most had died of asphyxia, often with their stomachs full, indicating that they were feeding when they became trapped under water.
Some fishermen also damage the bodies quite badly so as to avoid damaging their nets,” he said in the institute’s cold storage room, showing a dead dolphin whose tail flukes had been cut off.
Because the common dolphin is a protected species, fishermen cannot bring the bodies ashore, so they throw the carcasses into the sea and most bycatch remains unseen, Mr. Dabin added.
Fishermen’s representatives argue that the number of vessels in the Bay, up to 600 in the winter and spring, hasn’t changed in recent years. The vessels are the same, too, and so are the amounts of fish they catch, according to Julien Lamothe, the head of a fishermen’s organization in La Rochelle.
“Every fisherman has had to deal with a bycatch, one day or another,” Mr. Lamothe said. “Those are shocking events that they are trying to avoid. Catching dolphins isn’t their job.”
But as a result of recent restrictions on catching sole, a bottom-dwelling fish, some fishing boats have been using higher nets to catch other species, which might have resulted in more dolphin bycatch, scientists say. Some have nets tens of kilometers long.
From porpoises in Mexico to dolphins in China’s Yangtze River, bycatch is “the greatest threat to marine mammals around the world,” according to the Marine Mammal Commission, a United States government agency. Most are long-lived species that breed slowly: The common dolphins of the Bay of Biscay become sexually mature at age 8 and can live up to 25 years, and females give birth every three years on average.
“The day our studies show that the dolphin population has dwindled in the bay, it will be too late,” Mr. Van Canneyt said.
Sea Shepherd’s activists, most of them volunteers, patrol the bay aboard the group’s own vessel, the MV Sam Simon, looking for fishing trawlers and dead dolphins. A New York Times reporter and a photographer joined them for a day.
“This campaign is about long-term observation; we are doing what the French government should be doing,” said Mr. Barbati, a biologist who assesses salmon stocks for the Canadian government.
Lamya Essemlali, head of the French branch of Sea Shepherd, has advocated for more independent observers and cameras aboard fishing vessels to prevent bycatch.
“Bycatch is the first threat to marine mammals, and fishermen cast their nets right in the middle of their natural habitat,” Ms. Essemlali said aboard the MV Sam Simon. “How can we call those accidental catch?”
The only long-term solution, she said, would be a ban in the area on fishing methods that indiscriminately scoop up whatever creatures are present. But that would threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen, and economies of their towns.
The French government has raised a possible short-term compromise.
The ecology minister, François de Rugy, said he would support research on acoustic devices that attach to fishing nets and make sounds that drive dolphins away. One study found that on vessels using the devices, bycatch has decreased by 65 percent..
But scientists and Ms. Essemlali object that the acoustic repellents, known as “pingers,” threaten to deny dolphins an important and usually safe habitat.
And they don’t always work; the trawler L’Arlequin II uses pingers. Two days before the vessel trapped the dolphins in its net, its captain, Charles Le Moyec, said that since he had started using the devices, he no longer caught dolphins.
“We don’t like it either when we kill dolphins, but so far the pingers have worked well,” he said in his cabin, as his crew unloaded dozens of cases of frozen hake on the dock at La Rochelle.
Two days later, two dead dolphins lay in his net, close to the acoustic repellents. Afterward, Mr. Le Moyec, 35, insisted that it was the first time he had caught a dolphin this year — adding that he felt harried by Sea Shepherd, whose volunteers had followed him around the bay for hours at a time.
Along the dozens of blue, yellow and red fishing cabins and garages in the port of La Rochelle, many fishermen echoed Mr. Le Moyec’s frustration, saying that Sea Shepherd wanted to treat fishing as a crime.
“We’ve never seen so many dolphins in the waters, and Sea Shepherd accuses us of being murderers,” said Mr. Lagarde. “What about the massive vessels from the Netherlands or Spain that empty our ocean far away in the bay?”
Those, too, have been on Sea Shepherd’s radar. As the group ended its campaign last month, Ms. Essemlali said it would be back in the bay next winter.
“In the Bay of Biscay, dolphins are predators and the fishing industry is turning them into prey,” she said. “We can discuss what needs to be done, but that must stop, period.”