You’ve probably come across ‘supertrawlers’ in the news or in the film Seaspiracy which has made these industrial ocean behemoths a hot topic on social media. Supertrawlers are the largest fishing vessels at more than 80 metres in length. They can be more nomadic than smaller vessels, often fishing for several weeks at a time because they process the fish that they catch onboard. Their size and the scale of the destruction they can reap make them an easy ‘villain’, but supertrawlers are only part of the problem when it comes to dolphin deaths in fishing nets. Let’s explore ...
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Environment destruction and paper parks
Where trawlers and other fishing vessels drag their gear along the seabed, they can cause a lot of damage. You may be aware of calls to ban supertrawlers from marine protected areas. This UK campaign and others like it are concerned about the impacts of supertrawlers on vulnerable seabed habitats. These habitats are important for spawning fish and for foraging species like whales and dolphins. Habitats like seagrass beds are important for humans too, as they can lock up carbon, protecting us and our environment.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) are stretches of ocean that have been granted protection by governments because they are important for particular species of wildlife or they are significant habitats, and they come in many shapes and forms. To truly protect important habitats, including the habitats and species contained within MPAs, the activities that are allowed to occur – including (but not limited to) fishing - need to be managed, and these management measures need to be enforced. Most MPAs are known to those of us who work in marine conservation as ‘paper parks’, meaning that they are protected on paper only, with little or no management of the activities (and subsequent damage) that occur within them. This is a serious problem in the UK and elsewhere in the world.
Bigger isn't always badder when it comes to bycatch
Intuitively, we might think that supertrawlers must have a big impact and often they do, particularly if they are fishing in sensitive habitats. However, when it comes to dolphin, porpoise and whale deaths in nets, as ‘bycatch’, it’s not always a case of bigger equals badder. Not least because of the sheer number of smaller fishing boats out at sea.
Static gillnets are biggest killer
For example, a range of different types of fishing nets in the Bay of Biscay are causing the deaths of many thousands of common dolphins every year. In that area, dolphins get entangled in trawls, purse seines and gillnets. Whilst some types of trawlers there typically catch more dolphins, the sheer number of gillnets means that overall their impact is likely to be greater. Globally, gillnets are responsible for more marine mammal deaths than any other fishing gear type.
The amount of bycatch data collected on most fishing vessels is minimal or non-existent. We can only estimate the numbers of dolphins and other species being caught in different fishing gear because the governments in the UK and elsewhere don’t require or enforce rules to collect enough data. Even eco-labels that shoppers tend to trust when buying fish, like the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) blue tick are not up to scratch. Can you believe that we allow supertrawlers (like other forms of fishing) to fish in UK waters without bycatch data being collected as routine, onboard? Neither can I.
Governments need to see the whole picture
Keeping fishing activities that damage the seabed out of important habitats and MPAs is important, and necessary to enable ocean recovery. WDC is fully supportive of this.
However, we can not allow the exclusion of supertrawlers and other large fishing vessels from some habitats to lead to an unmanaged proliferation of other types of fishing gear that cause different impacts.
Gillnets aren’t dragged along the sea floor like some trawl nets. They hang like a wall in the water, anchored with weights and suspended by floats. They catch any creature that swims into them and are responsible for more marine mammal deaths than any other type of fishing gear. It would be irresponsible of governments to ban supertrawlers or other mobile gear types and to allow a subsequent increase in static nets, including gillnets.
Governments need to manage fishing activities to protect fish populations, marine habitats and sensitive species. We cannot do these things separately. The decisions taken by governments must consider all these factors.
Only properly managed fishing will save dolphins and habitats
To ensure a recovered ocean, and one which is safe for whales and dolphins, we need to limit the role of damaging fishing gears, and this is not limited to bottom trawling. We need to adapt fishing practices so the catch only consists of species that are targeted and doesn’t damage habitats or cause deaths of dolphin and other species. In some cases, in some areas including MPAs, we need to ban or reduce all forms of fishing. With your support, we work in the UK and all over the world to research solutions and provide government with practical advice on how to stop dolphins, porpoises and whales dying in fishing gear. We know the solutions – now we need government action. Together we will say Goodbye Bycatch.
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