The cetaceans are creatures that live in the seas and oceans of the Earth. Like other animals, not only must they cope with natural threats to their environment, such as predation or disease, but they also interact with human activities, such as fishing. Here we will see how fishing threatens the populations of these marine mammals.
CETACEANS AND FISHING: A DANGEROUS RELATIONSHIP
According to a recently report published by Ecologists in Action, the main threats of anthropic origin that cetaceans have to overcome are fishing, aquaculture, submarine noise, collisions with boats, marine litter, chemical pollution, sighting tourism , research, climate change and dolphinariums.
During the last century, whaling activity captured more than three million individuals worldwide, especially in the southern hemisphere, where according to the IWC, about 750,000 individuals of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and 400,000 specimens of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) were captured, among others.
It is known that until the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of blue whales were captured, the largest animal that inhabits the Earth. Despite conservation efforts, currently only between 10,000 and 20,000 individuals survive, a small part compared to those that inhabited the Earth before the boom in the whaling industry.
In fact, according to a study by Tulloch et al. (2017), although there is currently an international moratorium and major conservation efforts are being made, in the year 2100 the populations of cetaceans that were the object of catches will reach, at most, by half of its original size.
Contrary to the prohibitions established in 1986, there are countries that continue to catch whales and dolphins. These countries are mainly Japan, Norway and Iceland. It is believed that they capture some 1,500 whales annually together, although the demand for meat from these marine mammals is low. In fact, since the ban, it is estimated that some 30,000 whales have been captured.
In Spain, the capture of cetaceans is also prohibited, although it is believed that there is a small illegal activity.
BYCATCH OF CETACEANS
We must bear in mind the impact of accidental catches, one of the main causes of mortality in cetaceans. It consists in the capture of species that are not the target of fishing.
Bycatch can cause a conservation problem when there are endangered species affected, such as the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a critically endangered porpoise (there are only about 30 animals left around the world), according to the IUCN. mainly due to gillnets.
Bycatch is one of the main causes of mortality, although at European level some measures have been taken, such as Regulation 812/2004. Accidental capture with the use of driftnets was especially important, but this practice is currently prohibited throughout the Mediterranean. In any case, other fishing gears, such as gillnets, purse seines or trawls, are particularly harmful.
In the 1960s, the tuna purse seine fishery in the Eastern Pacific had a significant impact on dolphin populations. The reason is that the fishermen knew that under the groups of dolphins that swam on the surface there are schools of tuna that followed them to take directionality. Thus, knowing this relationship, they surrounded the cetaceans (and therefore the tuna) with the purse seines, killing the former. It is estimated that in 1986 alone, about 133,000 dolphins were captured. To stop this situation, the pressure of the society was fundamental to take the appropriate measures. In fact, currently less than 0.1% of individuals are captured.
Now we will focus on a case of gillnets. Gillnets kill many different species of cetaceans, both dolphins and whales. Although whales often survive, they often have traces of fishing gear attached to the body, such as nets. Small cetaceans do not suffer the same fate and often die. We have already seen the case of the vaquita , but another porpoise, the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is the cetacean that suffers most deaths from gillnets.
Finally, we will see the relationship between cetaceans and trawling. Many species of cetaceans, both dolphins and small whales, feed on the target species of trawling, so they are caught while they are feeding on their prey. In fact, 16 cetacean species have been reported worldwide that feed in association with trawling. The catches are much greater when nets are left at a medium depth than when fishing is done on the seabed.
Despite all conservation efforts, according to an estimate by Read and collaborators, about 300,000 marine mammals are accidentally caught around the world each year due to fishing operations.
COMPETITION FOR FOOD
Finally, we cannot forget that cetaceans and fishermen compete for the same resources. Therefore, we must bear in mind that some cetaceans also interact with fishing to get food. Sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins and killer whales have learned to “steal” food from fishermen.
In fact, they take captures from longline, gillnets and trawl nets, running the risk of being trapped.
In any case, some measures have been taken, such as installing devices that emit annoying sounds for animals. Despite the attempts, they have adapted to it and, in fact, in some cases interpret them as an indication of the presence of fishermen in the area.
- López López, L (2017). Cetáceos: los mamíferos más salaos. Informe sobre las interacciones entre cetáceos y actividades humanas. Ecologistas en acción.
- Hall, MA; Alverson, DL & Metuzals, KI (2000). Bycatch: Problems and solutions. Marine Pollution Bulletin Vol. 41, N 1-6, pp. 204-219.
- Northridge, S (2009). Bycatch. In Perrin, WF; Würsig, B & Thewissen, JGM (Eds). Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (pp.167-169). Academic Press (2 ed).
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation: Stop Whaling
- World Wildlife Foundation: The Vaquita
- Cover picture: Omar Vidal (source)