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Europe’s first whale disentanglement training course for fishers takes place in Scotland

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Europe’s first whale disentanglement training course for fishers takes place in Scotland

More whales and dolphins, as well as basking sharks and other marine animals, are getting entangled in fishing gear than ever before.  It’s a massive problem and the single biggest threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises. Many types of fishing nets and gear can pose a danger – even the ropes used to set and retrieve the baskets - known as ‘creel’ - used to catch lobster, crab and other shellfish. Whales, dolphins and sharks can’t see these lines and can easily get themselves tangled in them.

This can stop them getting to the surface to breathe which is fatal. Or, larger whales, like humpback whales, may break free but carry the rope with them which can cause a slow and painful death as the line cuts into flesh and bone and hampers the whale’s ability to move freely to find food.

creel baskets
Ropes attached to baskets used to catch shellfish can pose a danger to whales, dolphins and sharks

All forms of entanglement, including those in creel gear, can cause serious harm or death to the whale or dolphin involved as well as threatening the survival of populations or even species in some cases. But accidental entanglement can also have economic and safety costs for fishers.

No fisher wants to catch a whale or dolphin or a basking shark and education is key. It’s important to help fishers know how to take steps to avoid entanglements and what to do should they find themselves faced with an entanglement situation. So last week, I was delighted to participate in Europe’s first-ever whale disentanglement training course for creel fishers in Ullapool in the northwest highlands of Scotland.

Workshop attendees including fishers from Oban, Skye, Lochalsh, Ullapool, Scrabster, Shetland, Helmsdale, Fraserburgh, and the Clyde
Workshop attendees Image: Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) 2019

The workshop was organised by the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA), of which WDC is a partner. They’ve engaged with more than 150 Scottish creel fishers since early 2018 and 20 fishers (from Oban, Skye, Lochalsh, Ullapool, Scrabster, Shetland, Helmsdale, Fraserburgh, and the Clyde) came along to this weekend course which provided important information on entanglement prevention, the welfare and conservation of marine species and importantly, on the safety of fishers when dealing with disentanglements in active fishing gear.

We had a full day of on-water training in assessing and approaching both free-swimming and trapped whales using local fishing and support vessels.

In the picture below, the team are practising the 'Nantucket Sleighride', a technique originally developed by whalers and adapted to safely attach to and approach an entangled whale in order to disentangle him or her.

Fishers and BDMLR disentanglement team members practicing the ‘Nantucket Sleighride’, a technique originally developed by whalers and adapted to safely attach to and approach an entangled whale in order to disentangle him or her
Fishers and BDMLR disentanglement team members practising the ‘Nantucket Sleighride’ technique. Image: Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) 2019

David Mattila, International Whaling Commission Technical Advisor and coordinator of the Global Whale Entanglement Response Network delivered the course. David has been involved in approximately 70 disentanglements and has trained more than 1,200 responders in 34 countries. He was supported by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue’s dedicated large whale disentanglement team, who regularly rescue entangled whales around the Scottish coast.

Other techniques are being developed all the time as we learn more about situations, available equipment and technology. This is the first time these groups have come together like this and the first time fishers have been trained to disentangle in the UK. Hopefully a positive and big step.

What this workshop and the SEA project is working to minimise – a deceased juvenile male humpback whale stranded near Dunbar after becoming entangled in creel fishing gear
A deceased juvenile humpback whale stranded near Dunbar entangled in creel fishing gear. Image: East Lothian Countryside Rangers

I gave a talk on the legislative and policy drivers for tackling bycatch and entanglement, in other words, what government are required to do and our expectations.  We discussed measures that could be taken to prevent entanglements such as caps on creel numbers and separating out zones for different kinds of fishing gear to work in. We were given a demonstration of fishing technologies that don’t need ropes from the seabed to the ocean surface and we all shared insights to better understand, prevent and respond to entanglement incidents.

It’s so important to work together on issues like this and to share experience and knowledge and I’d like to thank SMASS for organising the event, and especially Ellie MacLennan. I’d also like to thank IWC and BDMLR for their disentanglement expertise and the fishers who gave up their weekend to take part with such enthusiasm and share their knowledge and experience.

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