Campaigning for better protection of UK whales and dolphins

WDC is working hard to improve the protection of whales and dolphins in UK waters using a number of mechanisms, including by implementing and improving our laws. We fund important field surveys, critical desk-based research and we have pioneered educational initiatives throughout the UK. We also run an amazing Dolphin Centre in the Moray Firth, Scotland. Our long-term aim is to ensure a safe future for all of the UK's whales, dolphins and porpoises.

An Introduction to the Whales and Dolphins around the UK

Over 25 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises live in UK waters, and many more are occasional visitors to our coasts. The limit of UK territory extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coast, and encompasses the ‘whale highways’ to the north and west of Scotland. Species seen include: blue whales – the largest animals ever to have lived on earth; fin whales; humpback whales; sperm whales; pilot whales; orcas (killer whales); harbour porpoises; deep-sea beaked whales; and several species of dolphins, including bottlenose dolphins.

Some whales and dolphins are found in the deeper seas, only occasionally venturing into shallower waters. However, some populations of harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins live much closer to shore. There are three resident populations of bottlenose dolphins in UK waters – one centred on Cardigan Bay, Wales; another in the Moray Firth, Scotland and coastal waters extending south from this and a lesser known population off the west coast of Scotland. A small group is also known from the southwest coast of England. Harbour porpoises have been sighted all around the UK coast, with critical habitats in a number of areas, including the northern North Sea (outer Moray Firth), the west of Scotland (Hebrides, Minches and the Sea of Hebrides) and West Wales (especially northern Pembrokeshire and southern Cardigan Bay; Lleyn Peninsula and Bardsey Island; and, north and west Anglesey).

Risso’s dolphins and minke whales are also known close inshore in many areas including the Western isles in Scotland, Cardigan Bay in Wales and the Moray Firth respectively.

However, this rich diversity of marine wildlife on our doorstep is being adversely affected by various human activities. Whales, dolphins and porpoises are being killed and needlessly harmed every year in UK waters. Everyday they face being entangled, poisoned, harassed, starved, or evicted from where they feed, breed or take shelter. In the seas, we may be in danger of repeating the mistakes made on land for many terrestrial species – driving them from their natural habitats and depleting or even extinguishing populations.

Nick in dorsal fin of Common dolphin and netThe directed capturing or killing of any cetaceans in UK waters was made illegal under the 1981 Fisheries Limits Act, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the EU Habitats Directive (1992). However, in waters beyond the jurisdiction of the UK and of other EU Member States, cetaceans can legally be hunted. Current Norwegian whaling operations include lethal takes of minke in areas adjacent to UK waters. These migratory animals may inhabit UK waters for part of the year and travel to Norwegian waters at other times. Unfortunately, there is currently no available information regarding migration patterns or population structure of these species using UK waters. Norwegian whaling vessels are also under no obligation to divulge details on where their catches were taken. For these reasons, the impact of commercial whaling upon UK cetaceans remains unknown but provides cause for concern.

WDC has published a substantial review of what legal issues need to be addressed to make UK waters safe for whales and dolphins

You can find details and further information on the issue of bycatch, Pollution around the UKNoise and boat traffic, Climate Change, Marine litter, Fish farms, Oil and gas exploration, Renewable energy, Military Activities in the UK and what existing UK legislation there is to protect them.

You can fnd out more about WDC's work in Scotland, and WDC's work in Wales.

You can also find out what to do if you see a whale and dolphin in UK waters