Eight European States Hit With Legal Action Over Whale Protection

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 20, 2005 (ENS) - Protective measures taken to ensure the health and survival of whales, dolphins and porpoises in European waters are not being adequately monitored by eight European Union countries, the European Commission says. To achieve better monitoring, the Commission today launched legal proceedings against the eight governments.

All cetacean species require strict protection under the EU’s Habitats directive, or law. The Commission considers that Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK have not established effective surveillance systems to monitor that protection.

The Commission has taken first step in the legal procedure by sending these member states a first written warning that they are breaching a law known as the Habitats Directive and need to take corrective action to ensure full protection of these marine mammals.

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Pilot whales swimming in the Mediterranean Sea (Photo courtesy Studiomare)
The Habitats Directive treats all species of cetaceans as "species of Community interest." That means that they are endangered, vulnerable, or in need of particular attention and grants them strict protection.

In addition, the law requires member states to designate special conservation areas for the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncates, and harbor porpoise, Phocoena phocoena. Member states must monitor the conservation status of all the natural habitats and species the directive covers.

Following complaints about a lack of surveillance of the conservation status of cetaceans in France, the Netherlands and the UK, the Commission examined the situation in other member states with a coastline.

Belgium and the Netherlands have established surveillance systems for cetaceans, but the Commission considers that their monitoring frequency, once every 10 years, is insufficient.

In the United Kingdom, surveillance activities are undertaken only in parts of its territorial waters, with the frequency of monitoring also insufficient, the Commission said.

France, Portugal and Spain undertake surveillance activities only in parts of their territorial waters and these actions do not cover all species of cetaceans.

The Commission said that Greece and Italy carry out only sporadic surveillance measures and lack a national strategy for such activities.

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A child studies a dead dolphin washed up on a beach in the west of England. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Cetaceans are at risk of entanglement in fishing gear, and dolphins are at risk of injury and death by fishing vessels, environmental groups say. There are hundreds of boats in the EU fleet from the UK, France, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

Greenpeace UK has found dolphins with "torn fins, lacerated flanks, broken beaks" caused by north Atlantic fisheries during the winter. Greenpeacers say the cetaceans suffer a slow death by drowning and being washed ashore on British and French beaches.

The main culprit for the deaths is a fishing method called pair-trawling most often used to catch sea bass during the winter as well as other fish like mackerel and hake, according to Greenpeace. Large nets are towed in mid-water at high speed by two fishing boats to catch the bass which are also the food of common dolphins and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Greenpeace warns that 4,000 dolphins and porpoises per year may die in mid-water trawl fishing nets, a death toll that indicates several species could become locally extinct within the next few years.

To be effective, the European Commission expects that member states' surveillance of species’ conservation status will be undertaken at regular time intervals, concern all species of cetaceans and cover all areas where these species are present.

The surveillance system must also ensure that information is available on the level and range of the cetacean population so that its conservation status can be properly assessed.

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Dolphins swimming in the Atlantic Ocean (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a Letter of Formal Notice that is the first written warning given to the member state concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the member state notified, the Commission may decide to address a Reasoned Opinion, which is the final written warning to the member state. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law, and calls upon the member state to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

If the member state fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending member state is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

If those measures are not taken, a financial penalty can be imposed on the member state concerned.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society says that in addition to the bottlenose dolphin and the harbor porpoise, many species of cetaceans swim in European waters, although some of them are rarely found.

Cetaceans in European Off-shore Waters: