Press Releases November 2005 - Fishing Nets Major Risk for Small Cetaceans - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Fishing Nets Major Risk for Small Cetaceans

More than two-thirds of World’s Dolphins, Porpoises and Related Species at Risk from being Culled or Caught in Nets

Further risks include Pollution, Habitat Degradation and Military Sonar Convention on Migratory Species Told

Nairobi, 23 November 2005 - Over 70 per cent of small cetaceans, animals which include dolphins and porpoises are threatened by entanglement in fishing nets a new survey unveiled today shows.

The second biggest threat is “directed” catches where the animals, which also include so called false killer whales, pilot whales and the narwhal are killed for food or uses such as crab and shark bait. An estimated 66 per cent of the 71 species surveyed are at risk from such activities.

Meanwhile, just over 56 per cent are threatened by pollution including contamination by heavy metals, pesticides and from ingesting marine litter.

A further 24 per cent are at risk from dam building, siltation, strikes from ferries and other factors linked with habitat degradation.

Almost 15 per cent are threatened by lack of food as a result of over fishing of the world’s ocean and nearly 13 per cent from culling by fishermen who fear they are a threat to fish stocks.

Noise pollution linked with underwater sonar and military manoeuvres are putting at risk over 4 per cent of species.

These are among the findings of a new report produced by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the Regional Seas Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, compiled by Professor Boris Culik of Kiel University, Germany, was launched today at the eighth Conference of the Parties to CMS which is

taking place at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

It argues that eight small cetacean species including the Ganges river dolphin; the Atlantic spotted dolphin and Northern right whale dolphin, should be given new protection under the CMS agreement,.

Conservation of stocks of seven other species, currently covered under the Convention, should also be extended to other areas the report suggests.

These include the white beaked dolphin in Canadian and United States waters and populations of Risso’s dolphin waters in waters off several coasts including south east South Africa.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “Small cetaceans are amongst the most well loved and charismatic creatures on the planet sometimes linked with heroic tales and legends. Sadly these qualities alone cannot protect them from a wide range of threats. So I fully endorse measures to strengthen their conservation through the CMS and other related agreements”.

“In doing so we can all play our part in helping to meet the target and time table, agreed at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable development, which calls for reversing the rate of loss of biodiversity by 2010. And in doing so we can send a strong message that we can deliver this for not only small cetaceans, but for all the threatened animals and plants on this wonderful blue planet,” he added.

Robert Hepworth, Executive Secretary of the CMS, said: “No comparable encyclopaedia has been published. With the exception of the sperm whale, all of the species of toothed whales that migrate across the oceans are covered. These new findings on distribution, behaviour and migration will facilitate the application of targeted action plans designed to reduce the threats that so many of these species clearly face”.

Notes to Editors


Numerous species of small cetaceans are threatened by being entangled in fishing nets such as gill nets and drift nets.

Among those is Hector’s dolphin, the rarest marine dolphin with numbers totalling less than 4,000 that grows up to 1.4 metres in length, It is found in waters in and around New Zealand.

Others include the Pygmy Sperm whale found in tropical and temperate waters across the world and Blainville’s beaked whale, which occurs in similar waters and is occasionally taken by Taiwanese whalers and Japanese tuna boats.

Considerable numbers of the Atlantic spotted dolphin, found in tropical and warm waters between the United States and Latin America and Southern Europe and West Africa, may also be caught incidentally by tuna purse seines off West Africa as well as in gill nets off Brazil and Venezuela.

‘Directed Catches’

Among those targeted directly is the Melon-headed whale, found in waters ranging from the Gulf of Mexico, Senegal, across the South China seas to Baja California Sur and Brazil as well as the Timor Sea and northern New South Wales Australia.

Little is know about numbers but some are taken in a well-established harpoon fishery near Lamalera, Indonesia and other places including the Philippines during the inter-monsoon season.

Other species hunted for food or bait include the Spinner dolphin, occurring in tropical and sub tropical waters globally and hunted in countries including Sri Lanka, the Lesser Antilles and Indonesia; the Goosebeak whale, another widespread species small numbers of which have been taken by Japanese hunters and the Common dolphin, found in the Atlantic, Pacific and probably Indian ocean. This species is still taken to supply bait for shark fishing in Peru despite it being illegal since 1996.


Those species threatened by pollution include the beluga or white whale which is widely distributed around the Arctic and adjacent seas.

For example the population found in the St Lawrence River, Canada, has been found to have levels of industrial chemicals linked with disorders and infections like gastric ulcers and higher rates of parasitic infections.

Others species threatened by pollution are the Pygmy killer whale where there are reports of pesticides like DDT and Dieldrin being found in the tissues of some animals off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida and the Narwhal, an Arctic living species found to be contaminated with pollutants heavy metals like cadmium and lead in waters including those off Greenland.

Habitat Degradation

The Ganges river dolphin is among those threatened by habitat degradation in the form of dams. Others include the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin or Chinese white dolphin found in various parts of the western Pacific.

Most concern here is for the Hong Kong population where tests indicate higher than normal levels of contaminants like mercury and where there are worries about the levels of human sewage to which the marine mammals are exposed.

There is also concern over the Atlantic hump-backed dolphin or Cameroon dolphin as result of destruction of mangroves off Senegal and coastal developments.

Tucuxi or the bouto dolphin, found in shallow coastal water and rivers of north eastern South America and eastern Central America, is threatened by extremely polluted effluent in large harbours in and around Rio de Janiero and Sao Paulo as well as by heavy metals from gold mining in other areas.


Species at risk from overfishing of their prey include the Long-finned pilot whale. “Commercial fisheries for squid are widespread in the western North Atlantic. Target species for these fisheries are squid eaten by pilot whales making these vulnerable to prey depletion,” says the report.

Others are the Irrawaddy dolphin threatened by a reduction of fish in Indonesian rivers and sites such as Chilka Lake, India and the Bottlenose dolphin, found across the world whose populations in the Black Sea may be affected.


Some species are being culled by fishermen because they believe they are competitors. These include the Killer whale, a cosmopolitan species that continues albeit at low levels to be shot off Alaska and the False killer whale, which in the past has been killed in waters off Iki Island, Japan, to reduce interactions with the yellowtail fishery.

Noise Pollution

The report cites three species at risk from this. They are the white or beluga whale; Blainville’s beaked whale and Cuvier’s beaked whale or Goosebeak whale.

Researchers found that a mass stranding of 12 Cuvier’s in the Ionian Sea in the 1990s coincided closely in time and location with military tests of an acoustic system for submarine detection carried out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Other cases include a stranding of the same species off the Bahamas in March 2000 which experts are linking to military tests as well as the death of some seven Cuvier’s in September 2002 around Gran Canaria, Spain linked with the use of high intensity low frequency sonar.

Tests on the bodies of the Gran Canaria whales found haemorrhages and structural damage of the inner ear.

Two specimens of Blainville’s whale were also found stranded in the March 2000 event and a least one died in the Gran Canaria incident.

Various studies indicate that Belugas, and possibly narwhals, may be susceptible to sound made by ice breaking ships.

Research carried out in the Canadian High Arctic for example found that the animals showed “strong avoidance reactions to ships approaching at distances of 35-50km…The ‘flee’ response of the beluga involved large herds undertaking long dives close to or beneath the ice edge,” says the report.

Additional Notes to Editors

Review of Small Cetaceans: Distribution, Behaviour, Migration and Threats by Boris M. Culik. Illustrations by Maurizo Wurtz. UNEP/CMS Secretariat Bonn is available at priced $40.

It can also be accessed at

More details on the CMS conference in Nairobi can be found at

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals is a United Nations Environment Programme-linked convention located in Bonn, Germany, with a current membership of over 90 countries.

For More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, e-mail:

If there is no prompt response, contact Elisabeth Waechter, UNEP Associate Media Officer, on Tel: 254 20 623088, Mobile: 254 720 173968, e-mail:

Also during the conference Veronika Lenarz, CMS Information, on Mobile: 254 (0) 724259762 or E:mail:

UNEP News Release 2005/59




Further Resources

Eighth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species
- Introduction to COP 8
- Key features of the 8th COP
- Meeting Documents
- Information for Participants
- Side Events
- Announcements
- Media / Press Room

Earth Negociations Bulletin - ENB
Daily Web Coverage of the Conference

UNEP Regional Seas Programme
Regional Seas Related Links

UNEP Dams and Development Project

Review of Small Cetaceans: Distribution, Behaviour, Migration and Threats
Compiled for the Convention on Migratory species (CMS
by Boris M. Culik (Kiel, Germany)
Illustrated by Mauricio Würtz (Genova, Italy)
Distribution maps by Birgit Gerkman (Bonn, Germany)
Order revised hard copy directly from

Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)

Convention on Biological Diversity

Global Programme of Action for the Protection of Marine Environment from Land-based Activities - GPA

Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission - UNESCO IOC

UN Atlas of the Oceans
The Atlas is an information system designed for use by policy makers who need to become familiar with ocean issues and by scientists, students and resource managers who need access to underlying data bases and approaches to sustainability.

UNEP Division of Environmental Conventions

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