Why are butchered dolphins washing ashore in France's Brittany?

On Aug. 2, a walker happened across the butchered body of a dolphin on a beach in La Torche, France. (Photo: Sea Shepherd/Facebook)
On Aug. 2, a walker happened across the butchered body of a dolphin on a beach in La Torche, France. (Photo: Sea Shepherd/Facebook)

A photo posted online shows the butchered remains of a dolphin washed up on the beach in western France. This isn’t the first time that a dolphin, skinned or carved, has startled beachgoers in Brittany.


In early August, a beachgoer walking in La Torche, in the French department of Finistère, found the body of a dolphin whose upper dorsal section was completely carved out. 

“These are protected species. These barbaric ‘customs’ must end,” this poster writes above a picture of a slaughtered dolphin discovered on a French beach and posted on Facebook Aug. 2. 

This picture shows one of several dead dolphins found over the weekend on beaches around La Torche. While it was the only one that was butchered, others had their tails cut off, a common practice used by fishermen to release dolphins trapped in nets.


A beachgoer found the remains of three dead dolphins on Plovan beach in Brittany and posted these photos on Twitter Aug. 2.

Locals in the region had found similarly mutilated bodies of dolphins back in January.

Three mutilated dolphins were found on Jan. 12, 2020 on La Torche beach in Brittany. 

On Jan 29, 2020, a carved up dolphin was found on the beach in the Bigouden region in the French department of Finistère.

“Death by the agony of the deep”


The common dolphin, present in the waters on the coast of northern and western France, is a protected species. In France, it is illegal to capture, transport, kill or mutilate these creatures. 

Dolphins and other aquatic mammals are commonly caught as unintentional “bycatch” in the nets of fisherman trawling for fish. Trawl nets are towed behind boats to catch schools of moving fish such as anchovies, bass or tuna. Dolphins can be pulled into the net accidentally or swim into the nets to feed, where they become trapped and drown. Legally, fishermen must release and report all dolphins accidentally caught in their nets, but nonprofit conservation organisation Sea Shepherd reports that fewer than 1% of dolphins caught in fishing nets are reported. 

The Paris Administrative Court condemned French authorities on July 2 for failing to take measures to prevent dolphin bycatch, based in part on the nation’s inadequate reporting and monitoring systems.  

Bycatch is blamed for the death of numerous dolphins every year off France’s Atlantic coast. From Jan. 1 to Mar. 18, 2020, nearly 1,000 dolphins were found dead on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, according to the Pelagis Observatory. More than 70% of them showed signs and injuries from bycatch. 

Since dolphins and fishermen are searching for the same prey, dolphins commonly end up near fishing vessels. In the Bay of Biscay, a popular area to catch sea bass, dolphins are plentiful. 

This map shows the number of aquatic mammals that washed up on beaches around the Bay of Biscay between Jan. 1 and Mar. 18, 2020.  (Source: Pelagis Observatory)


The number of dolphins found washed ashore represent only a fraction of the number killed in fishermen’s nets at sea each year. According to Lamya Essemlali, president of Sea Shepherd France, only 18% of dead dolphins actually wash up on shore. 


It’s only the tip of the iceberg. For years, fishermen have denied responsibility, saying dolphins die just from being sick or drowning in storms. But when scientists do autopsies on these dolphins, most are healthy with no sign of sickness. Then when you open them up you can see their lungs exploded in their bodies because they couldn’t breathe. They call that death by the agony of the deep, it’s a very painful death. 

Last year, 26 European NGOs asked the European Commission to prosecute 15 EU countries, including France, for failing to protect dolphins. In July 2020, the European Commission gave France three months to implement measurements preventing dolphin deaths on its coasts. 

Several measures have been implemented in France to reduce bycatch, such as placing neutral inspectors on fishing vessels to observe their catches. All trawler boats over 12 metres are required to use “pingers” which emit a high sound deterring dolphins from approaching. However, Sea Shepherd argues that these devices may actually cause more harm to the species by pushing dolphins away from their feeding grounds, making it harder for them to survive. 

But why are some dolphins ending up butchered on beaches?

Essemlali explained:


The way the dolphin is butchered is typical of what fishermen do when they eat dolphins. We have been receiving more and more testimonies from fishermen reporting this behaviour. There are certain people who consider dolphins to be like fish, that they can be eaten. But as a protected species, it’s illegal to eat them even if they are captured as bycatch. 

On Jan. 21, 2020, Sea Shepherd published a video showing unidentified fishermen butchering a dolphin for its meat.


In this video published by Sea Shepherd Jan. 21, 2020, fishermen are seen butchering a dolphin while saying, “It’s red meat” and  “A good steak” in French.


French officials condemned the actions shown in this video and called them “isolated behaviors", but Essemlali does not believe this video is unique. 


We used to believe this only happened occasionally, but we are getting more and more testimonies from fishermen who tell us it is a common practice. It’s very hard to estimate how many dolphins are being butchered like this but we have many different fishermen, who don’t know each other, telling us the same thing about different vessels. We have even heard of people who intentionally hunt dolphins with harpoons. They tell us it’s so easy because dolphins are so curious and friendly they come so close to fishing vessels. For them, it’s just free fish. There is also a black market for dolphin meat in France.


Sea Shepherd continues to advocate for dolphins and recommends that consumers reduce their fish intake and that the fishing industry be drastically reduced. They continue to organise nightly patrols in the Bay of Biscay to document and observe fishing methods. 

Article by Pariesa Young