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Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Call to cut porpoise deaths
Dead harbour porpoise in net WWF Germany
The porpoises cannot see the nets, so cannot avoid them
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Conservationists say the number of harbour porpoises dying in fishing gear in the North Sea imperils the species' survival.

They say the animals are highly threatened, and estimate the number killed in gillnets at around 7,500 a year.

They want protected areas for harbour porpoises, reduced bycatch, and an end to overfishing.

They say the European Commission (EC) should reform the common fisheries policy (CFP) to protect the porpoises.

The demand comes from the German section of WWF, the global environment campaign. After reviewing the existing research, it has launched a campaign to protect the porpoises and highlight the bycatch problem.

The group says a 1994 study showed the number of harbour porpoises in the central and southern part of the North Sea to be around 170,000.

It says an annual mortality level of 7,500 is not sustainable, and may in any case be an underestimate.

High risk

Dr Christian von Dorrien of WWF Germany told BBC News Online: "We certainly think this level of bycatch could mean the porpoises becoming extinct.

Harbour porpoise under water WWF Germany
Acoustic devices can scare the porpoises off
"It won't happen tomorrow, or in the next 20 or 30 years probably, though nobody can be certain what other human influences are affecting the animals.

"But we believe the number dying in gillnets each year is something like 4.3% of the population.

"Several international groups, including Ascobans (the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas), say 1.7% is a critical precautionary level. What's happening is more than twice that.

"If nothing changes, then there'll be a very high risk of eventual extinction."

Harbour porpoises are small animals with a blunt short-beaked head and a low wide-based triangular dorsal fin. Adults are usually less than six feet (1.8m) long and weigh from 90 to 140 pounds (45 to 70 kg).

Warning devices

They get caught in the thin gillnets set on the sea bed for cod, turbot, plaice and other species. Most are then injured, or else drown.

Harbour porpoise at surface WWF Germany
Mortality rates are thought to be unsustainable
The UK and Denmark have been working on electronic "pingers", acoustic devices which are fixed to the nets and emit a high frequency signal to scare the porpoises away.

Problems with the pingers' reliability have now been resolved. Work is also going ahead on applying a reflective coating to the nets, to make them more visible.

The UK fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, has written to the European fisheries commissioner, Franz Fischler, asking for the problem of small cetacean bycatches to be included in the revision of the CFP.

Scientific concern

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), the world's oldest intergovernmental marine science organization, is to finalise a report on small cetaceans in the North Sea by the end of August.

The report will then go to the European Commission. An Ices spokesman told BBC News Online he could give no details of what it would say. But he said concern over the harbour porpoises was high in the scientific community.

Images copyright and courtesy of WWF Germany

See also:

18 Jul 00 | UK
Porpoises under threat
28 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
'Grim future' for Europe's wildlife
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