BAY OF BISCAY — More than 1,200 dolphins and porpoises have washed up dead on France’s shores since January — and the crisis is sparking tension between fishermen and environmental activists.
In 2017, 846 small cetaceans, of which 90 percent were dolphins, were found on French beaches, according to scientists at the Pelagis Observatory in La Rochelle. The following year, that number declined to fewer than 700. But now the dolphin death count is shooting back up again, already outpacing previous years.
The way these dolphins die is well understood. As fishermen attempt to catch fish, dolphins get caught in their equipment. Unable to surface for air, the mammals die of asphyxiation. After hauling them onto their boats, fishermen usually end up releasing the bodies into the water, whereupon a portion of the carcasses wash upon on beaches.
“Most of the individuals stranded along the French coast during this winter, killed in fishing gears, were in very good body condition,” says Pelagis marine biologist Helene Peltier, as she performed a necropsy on a healthy-looking male dolphin found on a beach. The dolphin’s tail has been cut off by fishermen attempting to extract it from their equipment, and its lungs were filled with blood, a sure sign of asphyxiation.
There’s a difference between knowing how these animals are dying and knowing why they are. So far, scientists don’t know why the number of dolphin deaths have risen so dramatically, and they have yet to identify the types of boats or fishing equipment that are most prone to catching dolphins. The issue stems partly from the fact that despite European laws protecting dolphins, there are no penalties for fishermen who catch dolphins. So fishermen have little incentive to minimize the number of dolphins they catch or even keep track of them. And without those numbers, coming up with solutions is especially hard.
The French government says it’s working on an action plan to be formally announced in December. The details of the plan remain unclear.
Citing a ticking clock, environmental activists have taken matters into their own hands. Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation nonprofit, spent weeks in early 2019 patrolling French waters in an attempt to film fishermen with dolphins in their nets.
“Very often, actually, the fishermen slice them open to make them sink. So what we see on the beaches of France is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France. She believes industrial fishing should be banned from France’s waters altogether — but would settle, for now, with equipping fishing boats with cameras that could then be used to identify culprits.
Marine biologist Peltier agrees that cameras could make a difference. Fishermen just aren’t doing enough on their own, and it’s time to act, she says. “If we start to see a decline in the population, it’s going to be too late.”
French fishermen are pushing back. “Today, we're labelled as deviants, like we kill for fun. That's very hard to live with,” says Jose Jouneau, a former fishermen who’s now president of the regional fishing committee of the Pays de la Loire. He says that although fishermen are responsible for many of these deaths, it’s accidental and fishermen shouldn’t be penalized for it. Moreover, he questions whether French fisherman are actually the culprits. Fishermen from other countries also fish in France’s waters, and French fishermen are being unfairly targeted, he says.
As for cameras, Jouneau strongly objects to having them on board. “We already have so little intimacy. If we put cameras aboard, it's like we're being considered as criminals,” he says.
VICE News Tonight went to La Rochelle to find out exactly what’s causing so many cetacean deaths on France’s shores.
This segment originally aired April 24, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.