The boat of the NGO Sea Shepherd has been patrolling off the French Atlantic coast since mid-December to monitor industrial fishing.
Three knocks on the cabin door. ” Half past midnight! “: Time to sail the sea for the team of the NGO Sea Shepherd, on patrol in the Bay of Biscay against accidental catches of dolphins.
Six people take place aboard a semi-rigid boat, with camera and camera. In the moonlight, they move away from the Sam Simon, a former reassigned meteorological observation vessel, to reach an area where pelagic trawlers fish for oxen: two vessels tow an enormous funnel-shaped net.
Sea Shepherd volunteers wait, sometimes hours, for trawlers to roll up their nets, trying to be discreet. The welcome is hardly warm. “Bunch of scavengers!” Launch the fishermen when they notice the boat a few meters from the net they are going up.
They are fishing bass, but Sea Shepherd wants to see if any cetaceans have been caught in the lot . In a first net, an enormous mass frantically beats its tail: a tuna. A larger form stands out in the second, in the middle of the fish. ” A shark? “Says the videographer from Sea Shepherd. Sam Simon arrived on 22 December in the Bay of Biscay and will stay there until the end of February, for the second consecutive winter. Its goal? Put the spotlights on the dolphin catches . “The problem has been going on for 30 years, but there was a form of omerta “, denounces Lamya Essemlali of Sea Shepherd France.
” The fishermen go to areas where there is fish, dolphins too ”. Yves Le Gall, acoustic service manager at Ifremer.
1200 stranded cetaceans
«2019 was the year of all records ”, with 1200 stranding of small cetaceans between January and April, the most deadly period, of which 880 common dolphins , announces the biologist Hélène Peltier. In total 11 300 common dolphins are said to be dead, because the majority of corpses sink or are carried away off the coast. 80% of dolphins autopsied by Pelagis carry traces of collision with fishing gear : cuts, broken teeth, damaged rostrum, asphyxiation. The number of common dolphins is estimated at 198 000 in the Bay of Biscay. For scientists, if more than 1.7% of the population dies due to human activities , she is in danger. “We are far beyond,” notes Hélène Peltier, stressing that “accidentally killed animals are in good health “.
To avoid these accidents, acoustic devices to keep away the dolphins, called “pinger”, had been tested in the years 2000, then much more. The system had yet proven to be effective.
Reconciling fishing and dolphins
Since January 2019 , French fishermen must report incidental catches of marine mammals , but the legislation barely applicable.
Pelagic trawl fishing has been prohibited in off the island of Ré, on the Rochebonne plateau, a sensitive and protected natural area. With the strandings since 2016, “a real dynamic has been set up, concrete actions ”associating the fishermen, explains Thomas Rimaud, of the Fishermen of Brittany. “It doesn't amuse fishermen to catch dolphins,” added Hubert Carré, director general of the National Maritime Fisheries Committee (CNPMEM).
A cetacean protection plan, planned for the end of January, will complement these measures. “We want to equip all pelagic trawls in the Bay of Biscay with a pinger,” said the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. France is currently negotiating with Brussels so that the measure concerns all boats, French but also foreign. The pelagic trawlers in oxen, long pointed out, also agreed to take observers on board . They are responsible for around 4% of the accidental catch. These boats, 22 pairs in the Bay of Biscay, are now equipped with pingers. But other ships, including 20 solo trawlers and 400 spinners, fish in the gulf. “Difficult to know who catches dolphins and how many,” summarizes Hélène Peltier.
“We want to equip all pelagic trawls in the Gulf of Gascogne in pinger ”. Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
Scientists, NGOs and fishermen agree on the need to better understand what type of fishing gear catches dolphins , when and where.
Ifremer is working on new “pingers” and on reflectors to equip the kilometers of nets laid by the spinner. “We are almost sure that the dolphins do not see them” with their sonars, explains Yves Le Gall. For Sea Shepherd, acoustic repellents are not “a silver bullet”. The NGO calls for “a ban on non-selective fishing measures”. “Impossible”, replies Hubert Carré, who recalls the economic importance of French fishing . Dominique Chevillon, from the NGO France Nature environnement (FNE) pleads for less radical measures: “ periodic suspensions in certain places and for certain types of fishing “would be effective in protecting marine mammals, he argued.