At 5 a.m., the dark night obscures the fishing port of La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime) but the cry of the seagulls flying over the boats betrays the arrival of fresh fish. Only the trawlers’ headlights illuminate the auction quay. Fishermen unload boxes full of sea bass, hake and sole. With his hat on his head and bundled up in his parka to brave the negative winter temperatures, Romain receives the goods. This 34-year-old from Rochelle has been a newsboy since he was 18 and knows the port like the back of his hand. “Do you see this boat? Next week, it will remain stuck at the dock… Supposedly to protect the dolphins” he says, pouting. His grimace says a lot about the bitterness of port workers after the decision of the Council of State to prohibit fishing by more than 500 vessels, from January 22 to February 20 inclusive, to prevent the accidental death of cetaceans caught in the fillets.
The scientists’ hypothesis
In recent years, an increasing number of these mammals protected in France and Europe are stranding on the coasts of the Bay of Biscay, which extends from Brittany to Galicia, in Spain. On the beaches, members of the Pelagis observatory, a laboratory of the University of La Rochelle and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), autopsy the stranded dolphins and warn of their excess mortality. “Since 2016, between 5,000 and 10,000 are killed each year due to accidental capture” indicates Hélène Peltier, biologist specializing in cetaceans. According to the French Biodiversity Office, at this rate, “the survival of the population of common dolphins (around 180,000 individuals) in the North Atlantic is threatened.” The one-month limitation imposed by the Council of State will only reduce deaths by 17% at best, estimates the NGO France Nature Environnement.
On the port, Gérard, an 83-year-old former fisherman, chats with the younger people returning from sea. “He will be able to enlighten you, he has been retired for twenty-eight years and twenty-eight years since he comes to the port every day,” jokes the small group, coffee in hand. For this old sea dog, accidental captures are a new phenomenon. “In my time, it was very rare to come across cetaceans in fishing areas,” recalls the octogenarian, adjusting his cap over his white hair.
Scientists are still studying the reasons for this approach to the coast but put forward a hypothesis: the dolphins are content to follow their prey – anchovies, sardines and mackerel. However, these small fish are also the delights of hake or sea bass, species themselves coveted by fishermen. As a result, everyone hunts in the same place and the dolphins get tangled in nets that can measure up to 40 kilometers. They lacerate themselves while struggling and die of asphyxiation.
In order to understand and prevent these accidents, the government has encouraged fishermen to install cameras on boats and pingers (sound repellents) on nets. In vain. The Council of State estimated that these provisions did not make it possible to reduce the mortality of small cetaceans “to a sustainable level” by 2024. It therefore decided to ban gillnetting boats (gilling and entangling nets) of more than 8 meters for a period of one month. This decision gives some respite to marine wildlife, but it also paralyzes the port economy. In fact, around two thirds of French ships sailing in the Bay of Biscay are affected. “From Roscoff (Finistère) to Saint-Jean-de-Luz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), a little more than half of the tonnage of fish and the economic value will be lost,” laments Pascal Bouillaud, the director of the fishing port from La Rochelle. Behind him, his hands in the ice to empty and clean the hake that arrived in the morning, a tidal employee sighs. “We usually say that a fishing boat has four guys working on the water. But that’s without counting all those who make a living from the fish once it’s on land!”
A linked destiny
According to Julien Lamothe, director of the From Sud-Ouest fishermen’s cooperative, fishing companies will be compensated by the State up to “80% of their turnover from previous years”. On the other hand, nothing is planned for other maritime professions: criers, fishmongers, restaurateurs and transporters. In the Old Port of La Rochelle, a tourist district where seafood bistros line one another facing the Saint-Nicolas tower, Éva, a lively waitress, slaloms between customers. Commenting on this closure which sounds like an admission of failure in the relationship between man and the ocean, she slips, with a touch of bitterness: “one more proof that the destiny of dolphins and fishermen are linked.”