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Hundreds of dead porpoises on German beaches

May 2, 2019

Germany's porpoises are critically endangered and hundreds are washing up dead. Scientists point the finger mainly at fishing operations.

A dead harbor porpoise rotting on a beach
Image: picture-alliance/H. van Diek

Some 203 dead porpoises washed up on the shores of Germany's Baltic coast in 2018, the Environment Ministry said on Thursday.

It was the second-highest number since recordkeeping started in 2000. In 2016, 221 dead porpoises were found.

"Porpoises in the German Baltic continue to be threatened by extinction," said Steffi Lemke, the Greens Party member who requested the figures from the ministry. "The alarming rise in dead porpoise finds make it clear that we need effective conservation areas."

Read more: Fishing industry endangers harbor porpoises in Baltic Sea

She called for stricter rules on fishing and industrial use in conservation areas.

The breakdown of figures showed a record-high 69 dead porpoises were found in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and 134 in Schleswig-Holstein.

Weather affects count

Michael Dähne from the German Oceanographic Museum in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania told DW the two record-high years of porpoise deaths in his state was troubling.

Dähne said most porpoise deaths can be attributed to passive fishing practices but other factors involved were pollution, climate change and noise effects.

The state enjoyed particularly warm weather in 2018, which influenced the research. It meant more people were on the beaches, potentially increasing the number of porpoises found. But it also meant the animals were generally found in an advanced state of decomposition, hindering investigations into the cause of death.

Only native whale

The harbor porpoise is the only whale native to German waters. They grow up to 1.9 meters (6.2 feet), are related to dolphins and generally stay close to shore. They are found in the North Atlantic, the North Pacific and the Black Sea.

Read more: Baltic cod walloped as stocks crash

In the Baltic there are two populations of harbor porpoises. There are between 10,000 and 40,000 in the Belt Sea subpopulation, around the Danish Islands. It is unknown if this is increasing or decreasing.

The other group is known as the Proper Baltic subpopulation, and these are critically endangered, Dähne said. The group is estimated at fewer than 500 individuals, putting the morphologically-unique population at risk of extinction.

"With no mitigation measures in place for bycatch it will most probably be lost," Dähne said.

Fishing industry

The Environment Ministry said it was working to protect the animals. However, there are calls for more effective action, such as fishing bans in porpoise-rich areas, greater monitoring of bycatch, and modified fishing practices.

"Nobody is doing that at the moment," Dähne told DW. 

"The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, which is in charge of implementing these measures, is actually stating that porpoise abundance is increasing at the moment in the North and Baltic Seas – there is no indication whatsoever for this.

"They actually put the welfare of fishermen over international agreements to save porpoises from extinction ... and in the end, they may harm the fishermen by stating simply wrong facts."

One project touted by the government involves attaching warning devices to nets to keep away porpoises. But scientists have warned it will have a minimal effect as porpoises adapt to the measures.

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