NOTE: Just in case you are having your breakfast, I have included only one close up of the dead dolphin this post is about and it is a mild one and though I have doctored it, it still may not be to some peoples taste
UPDATE 5/2/17 Updated to include information from the IWDG website regarding causes in the Ardmore strandings and others.
Just weeks after three seals and a porpoise washed up on Ardmore beach in Co.Waterford, having apparently drowned after becoming entangled in fishing nets (read about it here), a dead dolphin has washed up on Tramore beach with injuries consistent with a struggle to escape from drowning in similar circumstances. It was a female Striped Dolphin, one of only three I have seen. It was fresh and the body unmarked except for the usual post-mortem scratches and gouges, caused by being washed up and down on the stony beach, and a badly broken and bleeding jaw. A row of its teeth had pulled away from the flesh and the bone was showing underneath. Some yellow fluid had gathered in the lower jaw, the beak was loose and the flesh flapped in the wind.
I have been reporting strandings as a volunteer in these parts for about five years now and I don’t consider myself overly sentimental about cetacean deaths. These animals are not unicorns and have to die like we all do. They have to wash up somewhere so, though the injury was notable and did not align with scavengers, bird, dog or otherwise, I did not immediately connect the dolphins injuries to fishing. I have more often come across dolphins which have rope tied around their tails, evidence that they have been caught and then winched back overboard to live or die.
But according to sources I have since contacted and researched, broken jaws, fractures and amputations are common in animals that have struggled to free themselves. Some do manage to do so and then die from their injuries. The broken jaw of the subject of my current report made even more of a visual impact than the rope which had embedded itself in the tailstock of the dolphin which stranded and died in Dunmore East last year. It is hard to imagine a struggle that causes an animal to practically tear its own face off. Both these sorts of deaths are called ‘bycatch’ and can also be caused by pair trawling, a method where two boats trawl at speed with a net between them and which is controversial and damaging as it scoops up literally everything in the sea, or bottom-set gill nets. It was pair trawling that was originally suspected in the seal deaths at Ardmore but as the IWDG have since pointed out it was more than likely bottom-set gillnets, which are legal, that caused them (IWDG, 2017).
All this is not to fuel a hate campaign against fishermen. They need to live too and there are bound to be some casualties but, despite my reluctance to ascribe most dead cetaceans I see to unnatural causes, the latest figures I can find suggest bycatch is the biggest killer of cetaceans, causing 300,000 painful and drawn out deaths a year around the world. And that doesn’t include sharks, whose bycatch number according to Greenpeace is in the millions (GreenPeace, 2015) not to mention birds (Albatross 100,000 deaths) and turtles. In the UK alone 276 common dolphins were estimated to be bycaught in set net fisheries and 417 seals (mainly grey seals) in tangle and trammel net fisheries in 2014 (WDC, 2015).This week it is reported that the tiny Vaquita Dolphin found in the Gulf of California is on the verge of becoming extinct due to fishing practices, with only 30 left (Morell, 2017).
It is hard to believe that we cannot find a more efficient way to fish. There have been some methods introduced such as attaching pingers, whose sound wards off dolphins and turtles, to nets and weights attached to hooked lines to prevent birds grabbing them before they sink but like so much at sea it is hard to monitor their use. Which brings me back to why I write about these things occasionally. Maybe the more information that is out there the more solutions we will find that suit everyone.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Greenpeace (2017), Bycatch, [online] available at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/oceans/fit-for-the-future/bycatch/ [accessed 3/2/2017]
IWDG, (2017), Causes of Deaths of Porpoise and Seals Washed up at Ardmore, Co. Waterford, [online], available at http://www.iwdg.ie/news/?id=2676
Morell, V., (2017),World’s most endangered marine mammal down to 30 individuals in Science Mag [online], available at http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/world-s-most-endangered-marine-mammal-down-30-individuals [accessed 3/2/2017]
WDC, (2015),UK Reports Latest Porpoise Bycatch Figures to Europe, [online] available at http://uk.whales.org/blog/2015/07/uk-reports-latest-porpoise-bycatch-figures-to-europe [accessed 3/2/2017]
WDC, (2015), Ending Bycatch, [online], available at http://uk.whales.org/issues/ending-bycatch [accessed 3/2/2017]
All opinions, research and (though I have stuck to what facts I could find) mistakes are my own.