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Over 1,000 mutilated dolphins have washed up on French coast

The gruesome deaths raise serious questions about the practices of fishing trawlers.

More than 1,000 dolphins have washed up on the western shore of France in the first three months of 2019. The number of deaths is shocking, but so are the bodies, revealing what marine researchers described as “extreme levels of mutilation.”

The animals get trapped in fishing nets dragged behind trawlers working in pairs. They suffer an agonizing death by drowning, as they are mammals that need to breathe air. Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd, told the Associated Press,

“These fishing vessels have nets that are not selective at all, so when they put their net in the water and the water is full of dolphins they get in the net… What happens is they suffocate and they also injure themselves when they try to get away from the nets, and that’s the reason why we find all these marks on their bodies.”

Activists say it's not uncommon for fishermen to cut off dolphins' fins to spare their nets from damage. More gruesome yet, they will stab the bodies repeatedly and cut them open to make them sink, hiding evidence of what's going on. Researchers estimate that only one-fifth of the dead dolphins has washed up on shore, which puts the actual total closer to 10,000 this year.

While dolphins are often implicated as trawler bycatch (marine animals caught by accident), there has been a drastic spike in the number of deaths in the past three years, something that activists link to a moratorium being lifted on aggressive hake fishing.

But this year's number is especially horrifying. Willy Daubin, a researcher at La Rochelle University's National Centre for Scientific Research, said, “There's never been a number this high. Already in three months, we have beaten last year's record, which was up from 2017 and even that was the highest in 40 years. What fishing machinery or equipment is behind all these deaths?”

It could be a lack of equipment that's partly to blame –trawlers refusing to use the acoustic repellent devices, or pingers, that warn dolphins off. Fishermen dislike them, saying they frighten off other fish, while Sea Shepherd calls them useless. “Increasing the number of repellent devices is not a long-term solution, since that makes the oceans an uninhabitable drum of noise pollution for all mammals and fish.”

Another driving factor is demand for low-cost fish, and this is something that we as consumers need to consider. Many of the trawlers killing dolphins are fishing for sea bass. Essemlali explained,

“Right now, the sea bass that is being caught by the trawlers that kill dolphins, you can find on the French market for 8 euros per kilogram ($12 per kilogram).”

Meanwhile, global seafood consumption has doubled, which puts pressure on fishermen to cut corners and maximize their catches.

Such a high death rate, if allowed to continue, will have a serious impact on the species' long-term viability. Dolphins are sensitive animals that are slow to reproduce and have few offspring. A Sea Shepherd spokesperson said, “By the time the decline in their population is visible, it’s usually too late. If we still want to see dolphins in France tomorrow, it’s urgent to take immediate measures to protect them.” But so far the French government has offered little in terms of a solution.

The gruesome deaths raise serious questions about the practices of fishing trawlers.