France ordered to ban fishing in Bay of Biscay as dolphins are in 'serious danger of extinction'
The French government has been ordered to ban fishing off parts of its western coastline amid fears the common dolphin is in "serious danger" of becoming extinct.
Oceanographic institute Pelagis has estimated that nearly 1,000 dolphins have washed up on the country's Atlantic coast this winter due to "accidental capture during fishing".
French judiciary body the State Council has given government officials six months to ban fishing in parts of the Bay of Biscay and to better protect common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises.
Government-affiliated scientists estimate that around 10,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed every year in that maritime zone of western France alone - while the figure was as high as 18,000 deaths in one recent year.
The deaths are mostly blamed on industrial fishing and although the council's intervention was welcomed by conservationists, campaigners said they "hope it's not too late" to save many of the animals.
Experts also said the dolphins have changed their reproductive patterns to give birth faster - a recognised sign before extinction.
Several species are now in a state of "unfavourable conservation" with the common dolphin and harbour porpoise in "serious danger of extinction" in the region, officials have said.
The controversial fishing methods involve French nets, sometimes 31 miles long, trawling the ocean for regular fish, indiscriminately pulling in a full range of sea creatures.
Autopsies carried out on some dolphins have revealed extreme levels of mutilation.
Activists have said it is common for fishermen to cut body parts off the suffocated dolphins after they become entangled in the nets so they can save their equipment.
Lamya Essemlali, of Sea Shepherd France, a group that has campaigned for trawlers and boats to stop their deadly practices, said: "Of course, this move is a ray of hope for us but it's bittersweet.
"So many dolphins are already dead, we see dead creatures washed up every day. I hope it's not too late."
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Dolphins in the zone are already behaving in ways scientifically consistent with a dying population, conservation groups have said.
"The dolphins have already changed their reproductive pattern - they are giving birth faster. This is a sign just before extinction," Ms Essemlali added.
The French authorities have been under pressure for a number of years to do more to prevent the high death rate of sea creatures - and have been criticised for not introducing stronger measures.