Underwatertimes.com News Service - December 17, 2008 21:18 EST

An animal welfare problem of major proportions has been uncovered in a new report by WDCS, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

The report, Shrouded by the sea, reveals the shocking truth behind the entanglement of whales, dolphins and porpoises in fishing nets, estimated to kill more than 300,000 of these animals worldwide each year.

The harrowing details of how whales and dolphins slowly meet their death in fishing nets, many suffering extreme injuries in what can be a protracted underwater struggle, are laid out in the report, based on a new investigation by researchers at the University of Bristol, UK.

WDCS International Director of Science, Mark Simmonds, said: "These deaths are known to be a problem in terms of conservation, with some species being pushed to the brink of extinction. What has not been properly recognised before is the significance of the suffering caused to each animal that gets caught."

As the animal struggles to escape, the gear tightens cutting deeper into the flesh. In extreme cases, fins and tail flukes can be totally or partially amputated. Dead bycaught dolphins are commonly recorded as having broken teeth, beaks or jaws and internal injuries.

Large whales have been found with lacerations deep into their blubber, sometimes to the bone. As they are powerful enough to swim away pulling the gear with them, the rope continues to tighten, resulting in a slow and painful death from infection or starvation.

WDCS calls on governments to act urgently and decisively to end this unacceptable suffering, including changing the way fish are caught and even closing fisheries where there is no way of preventing whale and dolphin bycatch.

In the US, WDCS partnered with the Massachusetts Lobstermens Association and other organisations to develop Masslobster.org. This program supports fishermen using sinking groundline, reducing the amount of line in the water column; this reduces the risk of entanglement for critically endangered Northern right whales.

The repeated chase and encirclement of dolphins in the Eastern Pacific tuna purse seine fishery also causes WDCS concern. Although dolphins are released alive from the nets, the practice causes severe stress and possible long-term health impacts. Lactating females have been found in the nets, with no sign of their calves, which if permanently separated from their mothers, will likely die.

Kate OConnell from WDCS-North America said "The Bush Administration has been slow, even failed, to act to protect whales and dolphins, putting politics ahead of science. We call on the Obama Administration to disentangle the process that Bush politicized, and to develop conservation and management guidelines for fisheries that take animal welfare concerns into consideration, thus affording whales and dolphins the protections that science shows they desperately need."