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Protecting whales in Scotland – how we’re working with Scottish fishers to save lives

Whale and dolphin entanglement in fishing gear (or bycatch) is a massive issue all around the UK killing more than 1,000 individuals every year. But in Scotland we have a particular problem with whales getting tangled up in the ropes used to join and haul up the baskets (known as ‘creels’) that are set on the seabed to catch wildlife such as crabs, lobsters and prawns.

In an effort to tackle this we joined up with five other organisations to establish the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) back in 2018. We brought together fishing industry representatives, conservation and welfare charities, and researchers to get a better understanding of the scale and the impact of these entanglements and to encourage fishers to report incidents.

A minke whale off the coast of Scotland
A minke whale off the coast of Scotland

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Many creels are set along a single line with a buoy at the surface to show fishers where their gear is located. Creels may be set for several days although most are hauled at least once a week before being reset. When we started the project we knew that large whales sometimes become entangled but we didn’t know the extent to which it happens to other species including turtles, dolphins and basking sharks - in total, more than12 species were reported entangled by fishers.

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

When entanglements occur, it’s usual for the individual to get wrapped in the gear and suffer severe lacerations from the rope cutting into their skin as they panic and try to escape. Larger whales such as humpbacks may manage to swim away, towing the gear wrapped around them for several weeks and even months. In cases like these, the individual’s ability to dive and feed will be restricted and they are likely to suffer infections from the rope cutting into their flesh and bones.  Entanglement in creel line has been described by attending vets as the most significant welfare issue they have seen.

Creel rope
Original illustration by richardpalmer.com, edited for republication

During our project we interviewed 159 creel fishers around the Scottish coast and almost half of them had experienced an entanglement. We estimated that 30 minke and five humpback whales are entangled in creel ropes every year in Scottish waters. Many of these fishers described their entanglement experience as a ‘once-in-a-career’ event, however cumulatively the number of entanglements may have a significant impact on these small populations and of course a devastating impact on the individuals concerned.

We created maps using data on the abundance of minke whales and creels to identify the areas where whales are most at risk of an entanglement.  The east of Harris and north-west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides as well as Skye, Rassay and the Small Isles down to Ardnamurchan were all found to be areas with high density of both creels and minke whales and so were identified as areas of high risk. When we analysed photos of minke whales taken during surveys, more than 22% of the whales showed signs of a previous entanglement.

Fishers do not want to catch whales, dolphins, turtles and basking sharks in their gear; it is a very emotional experience for them. Entanglements are also a safety issue for fishers and lost or damaged gear may be costly. Whilst fishers who had experienced an entanglement did provide us with a rough estimate of the cost due to damaged or lost gear, most fishers’ main concern was for the welfare of the whale, dolphin, turtle or basking shark. By sharing their knowledge and experiences we hope to be able to prevent future entanglements.

Through our project, we highlighted the lack of reporting of entanglements and the fact that many fishers freed entangled individuals from their gear themselves. Disentangling whales, dolphins, turtles and basking sharks from the gear is risky for both the entangled individual and the fishers. In 2019, Europe’s first ever disentanglement workshop for fishers was held in Scotland to help fishers take measures to avoid entanglements and to train them to disentangle whales, dolphins and other species from active fishing gear.

Europe's first disentanglement workshop for fishers © SEA
Europe's first disentanglement workshop for fishers © SEA

During our interviews, many fishers reported to us that they would be willing to trial new gear to prevent entanglements, such as weighted lines and ropeless gear, and to participate in future training events. The willingness of fishers to collaborate with us to avoid these entanglements shows how important it is for them to lead the way to preventing these tragedies and helping us improve our understanding when they do occur.  We are thankful to all the fishers who gave up their time to help us and we look forward to more collaboration in the future.

Preventing these awful entanglements requires a joint effort. We need the experience and cooperation of fishers, support from the public and action from the Scottish and UK governments. Only by working together will we say Goodbye Bycatch.

The report is available here.

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