Leading animal welfare and conservation charities, the RSPCA and WDCS, today reveal new evidence that illegal driftnets – which are lethal to whales and dolphins – are still in use in the Mediterranean, five years after they were banned.
The RSPCA has accused the Italian government of being irresponsible, and called the latest revelations a disgrace.
The driftnets, some as long as 27km, are still being used by fishermen based in Italy where they are posing a threat to local populations of whales and dolphins. These mammals, including the endangered short-beaked common dolphin and sperm whale, are in danger of becoming entangled in the nets and suffocating.
Driftnets are a type of wide gillnet suspended near the surface of the water and were banned by the European Union in 2002 because of their devastating effect on the marine environment. But a report from the RSPCA, WDCS, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and Humane Society International found evidence that the huge nets are still in use as fishermen flout the law while the Italian Government turns a blind eye.
The Italian government was branded "irresponsible" by the RSPCA for failing to enforce the law. It was aware of the problem following another RSPCA report released in December 2005, which exposed the continued use of driftnets and pleaded with the government to take action.
David Bowles, the RSPCA’s head of external affairs, said: "This is an absolute disgrace. What is the point of bringing in laws if they are not enforced?
"We exposed the illegal use of driftnets in 2005 and since then nothing has been done to stop them. It’s as if the Italian government doesn’t care. Meanwhile, species of whale and dolphin, some of which are endangered, are suffering and drowning."
The researchers have evidence of sperm whales and dolphins perishing in the huge nets and species of fish such as swordfish being illegally caught.
“If governments want to make the ‘Year of the Dolphin’ apply not just on paper, this is a field they can show that protection really means something for those animals the law is meant to be saving and are instead dying slow and painful deaths in illegal nets,” said Nicolas Entrup, WDCS programme lead on conservation of cetaceans in the Mediterranean Sea.
Researchers collected evidence of the use of driftnets by spying on fishing vessels from a research boat and from harbours. They believe 10 vessels using driftnets are operating from one port alone.
The RSPCA and WDCS are calling on the European Commission to take proceedings against the Italian Government to properly police its waters and enforce the law.