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Report highlights whale and dolphin entanglement in creel fishing gear

Young humpback whale entangled in creel rope off Scotland

A ground-breaking project supported by WDC is helping reduce entanglement of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals in creel fishing gear in Scottish waters.

The publication of a report today marks the first phase of the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) project, the first of its kind in the UK, which brings together commercial creel fishers, NatureScot (the body responsible for Scotland's natural heritage), scientists, and marine mammal conservation and rescue charities to better understand the scale and impacts of the entanglement issue in Scottish waters.

Entanglements in fishing gear and marine debris can have both welfare and conservation impacts on creatures like whales and dolphins, causing injury, impairment and death. It is the largest identified cause of death due to human activity in minke and humpback whales in Scottish waters. During at-sea surveys, over 22% of live minke whales observed on the west coast of Scotland showed evidence of previous entanglements.

There has been a rise in entanglement cases in recent years, from four in 2014 to 18 in 2018 and 15 in 2019, according to Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) figures. However, recorded cases were down to five in 2020, as reports decreased during lockdown. There was a decrease in both reports and response, and also a reduction in the number of reports coming from fishers or boat users at sea. So far in 2021, there have been eight reports and there is now a legal obligation for fishers to report entanglements.

The project involved interviewing 159 creel fishers about their fishing practises and their experience of entanglements. A total of 146 entanglements over a 10-year period were reported. Only a small number of these entanglements were previously known, demonstrating that entanglements are hugely under-reported. The interviews also revealed that a wider range of species were involved than previously known.

Fishers also participated in training events and workshops to promote best practise, reduce entanglement risk, and safely disentangle large marine animals from fishing gear. This training gave fishers the ability to call on each other and safely provide a rapid response to any entanglements.

Based on feedback from the fishers, the report recommends a number of ways to combat the issue, including trials of weighted ropes (ropes which sink rather than float) and tighter regulation to limit the amount of gear in the water and caps on creel numbers, all of which were supported by fishers involved in the study. Other recommendations include developing seasonal distribution maps of vulnerable species to identify potential high risk areas, and trials of ‘on-call’ – or ropeless – fishing systems.

Bally Philp from the Scottish Creel Fisherman’s Federation (SCFF) said: ‘The SCFF are proud to have taken part in this study. We look forward to collaborating with our partners on sourcing funding for the next phase of this project, which will be to research and develop equipment and strategies to reduce entanglement.’

The study was led by NatureScot and supported by partners, the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme, British Divers Marine Life Rescue, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust. It was funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

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