Nine dolphin and porpoise populations around the world need immediate action if they are to survive the threat of entanglement in fishing gear. These are the findings of a new WWF report based on a first-ever assessment by leading marine scientists.

According to WWF, bycatch � the capture in fishing gear of unwanted fish and other species � is one of the greatest global threats facing dolphins, porpoises, as well as whales. When caught in fishing nets, many of these cetaceans, which need to come to the surface for air, get trapped underwater and die. Previous estimates show that more than 300,000 cetaceans are killed in fishing gear each year in the world's oceans.

The report indicates these dolphins and porpoises as languishing without attention, but stresses they could recover if changes to fishing methods and other conservation efforts were made. They include harbour porpoises in the Black Sea, where thousands of porpoises are killed each year; Atlantic humpback dolphins off the coast of West Africa; Irrawaddy dolphins in South East Asia; and Franciscana dolphins in South America. Most of the species on the list are threatened by the widespread use of one type of fishing gear � gillnets. These nets are difficult for dolphins and porpoises to spot visually or detect with their sonar, so they may become tangled in the netting or in the ropes attached to the nets.

"Almost 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every day in nets and fishing gear. That's one every two minutes," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Global Species Programme. "Some species are being pushed to the brink of extinction. Urgent action is needed - and we developed this ranking to help governments and aid agencies know where their money and efforts can really make a difference."

For example, between 1993 and 2003, fisheries in the United States introduced changes, such as modifications of fishing gear, that reduced cetacean bycatch to one-third of its previous levels. But so far, few of these successful measures have been transferred to other countries, and in much of the rest of the world, progress to reduce bycatch has been slow or nonexistent.

"Rather than simply identifying the species or populations at greatest risk, or the geographical locations where the bycatch problem is most severe, the group of scientists was asked to emphasize where the prospects for successful intervention were especially good," said Dr Randall Reeves, lead author of the report and the chairman of the IUCN Species Survival Commission's Cetacean Specialist Group.

The report will be submitted to the International Whaling Commission's scientific committee at its annual meeting next week in the Republic of Korea. The scientific committee last year endorsed the methodology of the WWF report.