Record number of porpoises washed up on Belgian shore

“There are more and more porpoises swimming in Belgian waters,” explains Sigried Maebe, biologist and communications manager at the MUMM, Management Unit of the North Sea Mathematical Models. “We don’t yet know the exact reasons behind this phenomenon. We think that they are moving in a southerly direction due to a lack of food.”

 

Every year, a greater number of cetaceans find themselves stranded near seaside resorts such as Oostende, De Panne, Koksijde and Blankenberge. In the 1990s, six per year would be the maximum one would be likely to find. This year, a new record of 117 beached creatures has already been set.

 

Every dead porpoise is subjected to an autopsy. “When the animal is in a bad state and has been decomposing for quite some time we conclude that it died of natural causes. But when there is still a lot of fat on the body and fish in its stomach, our experts assume that it likely died in fishing nets,” explains Maebe.

 

Unable to swim backwards, these “sea hogs” regularly get tangled up in fishermen’s nets.

“In principal, if fishing boats capture a porpoise in their nets by mistake, they are supposed to systematically make that fact known, but very few actually do,” criticizes the biologist.

 

However, there are solutions worth considering that could limit the number of porpoises picked up by fishing boats. There are devices available which can send audio signals that would keep the animals at a distance. Or, fishing activity could be restricted when porpoise numbers reach a peak.

 

Another factor which may explain this carnage is the use of recreational nets that individuals spread out over the beach at low tide. Fish get trapped at high tide, but porpoises sometimes do too, getting entangled and stuck underwater. The animals can only last two to three minutes without oxygen, and must come back to the surface to breathe.

 

“Recreational sea fishing is forbidden at federal level. But as far as beach fishing – which is regulated regionally – is concerned, the laws differ from one municipality to another. Oostende has banned the use of these types of nets, but some Flemish coastal towns have not followed suit,” says Francis Kerckhof, a marine biologist.

 

Friday, in Flemish daily De Morgen, the MUMM’s Jan Haesters condemned the Flemish minister for natural resources, Joke Schauvliege (CD&V), for not having introduced a ban on recreational fishing nets. Kerckhof is supportive of his colleague’s point of view: “Scientific reports clearly prove that porpoises are dying because of recreational fishing. But nothing is done about it. And there are alternative solutions available for people who enjoy this kind of leisure pursuit, such as nets that are much less dangerous.”

 

ANN-CHARLOTTE BERSIPONT

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