In the Perkunas campaign, Sea Shepherd Germany patrolled the Puck Bay in Poland for several weeks with the M/V Emanuel Bronner to monitor gillnets used for fishing. The number of critically endangered Baltic harbor porpoise caught as bycatch (the catch of non-targeted species) has been particularly high in this area. Studies also show that most of the unintended catches resulted from fishing gear unofficially called “semi-driftnets”.
The harbor porpoise is listed as a “species of community interest” whose conservation requires the designation of special conservation areas according to the EU Habitats Directive. Puck Bay is one of these areas, as it is an important habitat for the Baltic population. Despite that, numerous examples of fishing gears have be found inside the bay. In a week of patrols, the crew of the M/V Emanuel Bronner documented a minimum of 60 permanently set nets. Most them are considered semi-driftnets. While gillnets are usually anchored on both ends, the semi-driftnets are floating freely on one side. They are therefore a variation of driftnets, which have been banned in the Baltic Sea by the EU since 2008 because after being classified as particularly dangerous for non-targeted species.
Due to a lack of a proper definition, any net that is anchored can be declared a gillnet. The fishermen in Puck Bay, who were using mainly driftnets as fishing gear before the ban, are using this loophole to continue fishing with their nets by putting an anchor on one end. For harbor porpoises it is dangerous when the nets change direction with the current. Also, the nets are floating on the surface – an area where the porpoises must go to breathe. Additionally, the risk for entanglement is high since the net isn’t pulled taught. Semi-driftnets are death traps for harbor porpoises, seals and sea birds – but so are gillnets. In fact, gillnets are responsible for the majority of bycaught porpoises in the Baltic Sea. Since they are both non-selective, they are the same threat for the animals.
While ban of driftnets in 2008 was a right decision, gillnets should have been banned at the same time. Considering that the Polish fishermen in Puck Bay continue using the same nets with a little modification, it becomes clear that the ban did not lead to an actual change. The unintentional negative side-effect was that fishermen have stopped reporting bycatch of harbor porpoises out of fear that it would result in a ban of gillnets. There are now cases of fishermen covering up bycatch evidence by putting stones in the bodies of the dead porpoises so that they’ll sink to the seabed. When carcasses wash-up on shore, they are usually too decomposed to determine the actual cause of death. Sometimes, only the flukes (or nose) of the porpoises are found, which were cut off when removing the entangled animal from a net. Some scientists claim that more than half of the washed-up porpoises died as a result of bycatch.
In fact, the number of bycaught porpoises has not changed since the driftnet ban, but the number of reported cases has gone down. In March the Hel Marine Station reported that a healthy young male harbor porpoise was bycaught in a gillnet on the Polish coast in Rowy. Another porpoise washed up in May of the same year between Sopot and Gdynia in the Gulf of Gdansk, in a decomposed state. Both porpoises were from the critically endangered Baltic population. With only 500 animals left, there is no time for weak and ineffective regulations that can be circumvented through loopholes: any type of set-nets, such as gillnets, must be banned in areas important for the survival of the harbor porpoise, such as Puck Bay.