As the holiday season approaches, increasing reports of dolphin disturbance incidents in the waters around the UK involving members of the public have prompted WDC to launch a new public information drive in partnership with the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) - a dedicated British police department that gathers intelligence on wildlife crime.
Of particular concern is the lack of awareness of the existing laws around disturbance by members of the public using boats, jet skis, or who attempt to jump in and swim with dolphins in the seas around the UK. This leads to a worrying lack of reporting of incidents, which are on the increase but thought to be much higher because many boat users and holiday makers simply do not know what the rules are or how to report incidents they witness.
Surprisingly, the only region where incidences of disturbance are recorded to the appropriate level of detail currently is in Cornwall, where 136 incidences were reported to the Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group hotline in 2017. Prosecutions are rare, yet disturbance is a regular occurrence over the summer months when the waters are busy and coastal wildlife is most accessible.
WDC staff and volunteers regularly witness disturbance first-hand and receive many reports from concerned marine wildlife enthusiasts, which has prompted the new awareness drive.
‘Our key aim is to stop disturbance before it happens by raising awareness of the issues’, says Alice Walters, WDC policy officer.
UK seas are a special place for dolphins and whales, being home to 21 species, more than anywhere else in northern Europe. They are also a rapidly growing destination for marine recreation and tourism, which is increasing levels of disturbance. Disturbance happens when people get too close to marine wildlife, disrupt their natural behaviours and cause them stress.
‘Significant human disturbance, or harassment, is illegal and can drive dolphins from the places that are important for them’, Walters continues.
‘Everyone is excited to encounter whales and dolphins. Social media interest, particularly around unusual sightings such as orca, humpbacks and the Thames beluga nicknamed “Benny”, can draw crowds of people, all hoping to get a close view. They can be unaware of how to behave around them, so most disturbance is unintentional. A good encounter is one that is enjoyable for you and the whales or dolphins.’
Chief Inspector Lou Hubble , NWCU, added; ‘Wildlife watching is an amazing experience and it can be very easy to get lost in the moment. If your behaviour has a detrimental effect on an dolphin you could be committing an offence. Give marine mammals space to exhibit natural behaviours in their natural environment without harassment or disturbance . Keep your distance, show respect and be responsible.’