Around 1,105 harbour porpoises die in UK fishing gear each year, mainly in the North Sea and Celtic and Irish Seas. What’s worse is that the real number is probably a lot higher as the estimate doesn’t include all UK fleets or those of other nations fishing in UK waters.
We need urgent action to stop this needless suffering and tragic loss of life.
Entanglement in fishing nets (or bycatch) is the single biggest killer of dolphins and porpoises, including in UK waters where the biggest threat to porpoises is from static gillnets. These are nets that hang in the water for hours or days at a time, catching any creature that swims into them.
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So I was pleased to see this important Defra-funded report, Bycatch and Mitigation Approaches in Harbour Porpoise Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which looks at how pingers (acoustic devices that are attached to nets and emit a warning sound) and no-fishing zones can save lives within five protected areas created for harbour porpoises off the coasts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The report calculates that between 62 and 146 porpoises could be saved in these important SACs by putting effective bycatch prevention measures in place in the UK gillnetting fleet.
Closure of gillnet fishing will only be an effective way to reduce bycatch in porpoise SACs if the fishing effort is not displaced elsewhere. Using pingers in these important habitats could reduce bycatch from about 100 to between five and 30 porpoise deaths, if implemented properly, but the deterrent ‘pinging’ noise would also mean porpoises stayed away from a very small percentage (up to 1.18%) of their protected zone.
We need to consider the extent of porpoise disturbance, especially displacement from important habitats such as SACs, compared to the deaths in nets that would otherwise occur.
We were recently involved in a project to assess the extent of disturbance due to pinger usage. Projects like this need to be scaled up, so we can look at the impact of larger numbers of pingers in areas where porpoises are found. Pingers are just one management solution, and they are not suitable for all bycatch situations.
We were disappointed that the Defra report did not consider the use of alternative or modified fishing gear as these could further reduce porpoise deaths while protecting livelihoods.
The UK has had a very important protected species bycatch monitoring scheme for more than 20 years but the Defra report identifies just how little bycatch monitoring actually takes place, even within each of the SACs. Better monitoring of bycatch and better fishing data in all fishing vessels working in UK waters are crucial if we are to address this issue. Unfortunately, the Defra report did not consider the West Scotland SAC in the Hebrides and the Minches, as the report identifies low levels of gillnetting in this area.
The report found a similarity between bycatch rates within porpoise SACs and outside SACs and so consideration of mitigation measures outside of SACs as well as within SACs is required. Porpoises are ‘strictly protected’ in all UK and European waters, so we need to protect them from bycatch wherever they are.
Both EU regulations and the Fisheries Bill (that will determine how fishing is managed in the UK after Brexit), state that we must ‘minimise and where possible eliminate’ the bycatch of ‘sensitive species’, including harbour porpoises.
WDC will continue to play its part, working with Defra, fishers and other stakeholders to find and implement ways to reduce the impact on porpoises and other protected species. But this is an area where the UK Government has a chance to show leadership.
Bycatch is a massive issue and the single biggest killer of porpoises in UK waters and globally. But these deaths are preventable. With determination and collaborative working, we can and we must save porpoise lives and we call on the UK and devolved governments to do just that.
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Sarah wrote this blog before being furloughed under the UK government's job retention scheme.