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Gone fishing… gone…

UK Environment Minister Hilary Benn will give a speech in Copenhagen today highlighting the changes in our seas which could be related to climate change, especially increasing acidity.

Back in the summer, researchers from the wildlife conservation charity Marinelife were already extremely concerned about what they were NOT seeing in the Bay of Biscay.

Marinelife’s unique long-term monitoring project, the Biscay Dolphin Research Programme (BDRP) has been conducting scientific monthly whale, dolphin and seabird surveys through the English Channel and Bay of Biscay for the last 13 years, using the P&O Cruise Ferry, The Pride of Bilbao, as a research platform. In addition, a BDRP full-time Wildlife Officer collects daily data on dolphin abundance. The BDRP surveys have detected more than 20 species of whale and dolphin in the Bay of Biscay and counted over a hundred thousand animals. 

Through the recent work of BDRP and other research groups, the Bay of Biscay has become known as a worldwide hotspot for whales, dolphins and seabirds with many passengers each year experiencing wonderful encounters with the marine wildlife, especially groups of dolphins that may number several thousand.

However, this summer there has been a very obvious and worrying dearth of sightings, which is significant given that the Bay of Biscay is of European importance for dolphins and other cetaceans.

Early indications have shown that during June and July, the total number counted of the 3 main dolphin species, Common Dolphin, Striped Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin, are down by around 80% on the same time last year. Seabirds, such as auks, shearwaters, and gannets have also been in short supply and the situation has been ongoing since the early spring, with no signs of an improvement thus far during August.  

Marinelife are worried that this very apparent decline in sightings of both dolphins and seabirds along the ferry route, could be more wide-ranging and could indicate a big reduction in fish stocks due to over fishing or a change in distribution of fish stocks due to temperature changes (in turn linked to climate change). This year has already been marked by a failure of the anchovy fishery, with bans being put in place for the Spanish and French fleets, but what else could be happening?

Marinelife’s Research Director, Dr Tom Brereton said: “Whatever the cause of the disappearance of dolphins this summer, it shows both how vulnerable they are and how alarmingly quickly local declines can occur when environmental conditions change. The changes highlight how we need to act quickly, to address major issues such as climate change and over-fishing.”

Once again the sea is proving a valuable barometer of the declining state of the planet. Marine life is especially susceptible to changes in natural conditions and we would do well to heed the message that the world’s oceans are sending on an increasingly regular basis.

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