Between August 1990 and September 1995 the carcases of 422 cetaceans of 12 species that had died around the coasts of England and Wales were examined. There were 234 harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), 138 common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), and 50 individuals of 10 other species of dolphins and whales. The cause of death was diagnosed in 320 (76 per cent) of them. The most frequent cause of death in the harbour porpoises and common dolphins was entanglement in fishing gear (bycatch). Of the cases in which the cause of death was established, 66 (38 per cent) of 176 harbour porpoises, 86 (80 per cent) of 108 common dolphins, and six (19 per cent) of 31 individuals of other species had been bycaught. Neonatal starvation, pneumonia and generalised infections accounted for a further 31 per cent of the diagnosed causes of death in harbour porpoises. The proportion of stranded common dolphins that had been bycaught was consistently high except during 1995, but the proportion of stranded harbour porpoises which had been bycaught increased in each successive year.