Bycatch is the biggest global killer of dolphins, porpoises and whales – hundreds of thousands of them die in fishing gear every year and I have spent some time considering how the pandemic might impact my work to prevent these deaths and what global shifts we might expect as a result of it.
I was on the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, when the coronavirus hit the UK. We have a long-term research project there, studying the Risso’s dolphins to learn more about how they use these waters. Our findings provide the evidence we need to lobby the Scottish government for better protection measures to keep these dolphins safe.
When the pandemic hit, my colleague, Nicola Hodgins, and I had to leave Lewis before our field trip was completed. For the last decade that we have been working in this remote and beautiful part of the Scottish Highlands, a local fisher and wildlife tour operator has been our skipper and a vital member of our small field team of three.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s UK head office is in Chippenham in the south west of England, but I am based in Edinburgh and I feel lucky that I am already set up to work from home and am used to the challenges of attending remote meetings and lack of face-to-face contact. Whilst I get to sea each year for a few weeks at a time, most of my day-to-day work is focused on reducing whale and dolphin entanglements in fishing gear (bycatch).
Before we left the Isle of Lewis we saw first-hand how local marine-based businesses, including fishing and tourism, would be seriously affected by the virus, as people might be less able to access fresh fish, as tourist numbers dwindled and as people cancelled their holiday plans. It's no different around the world, boats are tied up in harbours as fishers and wildlife operators can’t get to sea. Like other sectors, many of these seafarers are now struggling with the daunting potential of loss of livelihood.
The positive and negative environmental impacts of changing human activities resulting from coronavirus will be varied and wide reaching, and it will no doubt be some time before the true environmental costs and gains that the crisis has had on whales and dolphins become clear. I have been wondering whether we’ll review data and find fewer dolphins and porpoises have died in nets in areas where fishing effort was reduced under lockdown and fewer whales have become entangled in gear. It is also possible that, in some areas, risk increased as gear remained in the water, unable to be retrieved by fishers whose lives would be put at risk by heading out to sea during the pandemic.
In rebuilding after the pandemic, can we benefit local whales and dolphins and coastal marine industries at the same time, by providing for the needs of both of them?
Parliaments and governments in all countries of the world, like so many of us, are grappling with the new reality of remote working. Our ability to engage with them in the UK has been limited for the time being. The research data we continue to gather on Lewis has been fundamental in persuading the Scottish government to commit to protecting an area of the sea around the Hebrides that is important for the Risso’s dolphins, and we were expecting the government to announce the creation of a new marine protected area about now. This is likely to be delayed as governments deal with the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis. Other legislation, such as the Fisheries Bill (which sets out how the UK will manage fishing after Brexit) are likely to be affected too.
But engagement will pick up again, and it will continue. And where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. Whilst it may seem that we are a long way from the end of this tunnel, we should plan for a future that looks more like one we want – and one the planet desperately needs. We can take the time to allow populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises to thrive as we rebuild truly ‘sustainable’ fisheries where dolphin, porpoise and whale deaths in fishing gear are no more than an occasional tragedy.
Please help us today with a donation.
Every gift, large or small, will help us continue our work to make fishing safer for dolphins, porpoises and whales.