Every week in UK waters about 30 porpoises, dolphins, whales and seals die in our fishing nets. Unable to get free, they will often struggle before suffocating. A large whale might pick up fishing gear and carry it, cutting into their skin and blubber, painfully slowing them down and preventing them from feeding.
It was 30 years ago when scientists first raised concern about the number of harbour porpoises dying in gillnets in the Celtic Sea, yet these porpoises are still dying in high numbers. The southwest of England, the most heavily fished region of the UK, is a hotspot for porpoise and common dolphin deaths in fishing nets.
We’ve known for three decades that dolphins are dying horribly as ‘bycatch’ in our fishing nets, so let’s explore what’s been done in that time to save them …
Please take action - urge ministers to stop UK dolphins dying in fishing nets
Beginning to record
In the early 90s, schemes were set up to record the bodies of marine mammals washing up on UK shorelines. These bodies often tell a story, displaying injuries from being caught in a fishing net and hauled onboard a fishing boat – broken teeth, damaged fins and net lacerations - even when the fishing gear is long gone.
We know that harbour porpoises, common, bottlenose, Risso’s, white-beaked, white sided and striped dolphins, orcas, minke and humpback whales and some offshore species like Sowerby’s beaked and long-finned pilot whales have all died in fishing gear in UK waters.
Not enough monitoring
The UK Bycatch Monitoring Programme has collected data on the bycatch of marine mammals (such as the individuals highlighted on our interactive map above), seabirds, marine reptiles, and sensitive fish species for more than 15 years. Yet monitoring levels onboard fishing vessels are very low in the UK, just like elsewhere, and only one to five percent of certain fishing fleets are observed.
In 2003, Defra released the Small Cetacean Bycatch Response Strategy. In 2004, the Westminster Parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee reviewed dolphin bycatch, an inquiry in which Whale and Dolphin Conservation gave evidence. The Committee made a number of recommendations, some of which would been helpful if implemented – like compulsory onboard bycatch monitoring (unbelievably, it remains voluntary) and adequate levels of bycatch monitoring on fishing vessels.
About this time, the government closed the UK seabass pair trawl fishery within 12 nautical miles of the English south coast, as huge numbers of common dolphins were dying in the football-pitch-sized nets that are dragged between two fishing vessels (hence the name ‘pair’ trawl). These measures did not apply to the fleets of any other nation pair trawling though. It was the crashing of the seabass population due to overfishing that led to the whole fishery being closed. Whilst this is a poor way to manage a fishery, it was a good outcome for common dolphins, although not the end of their bycatch problems - not by a long shot.
Which types of fishing gear kill dolphins, porpoises and whales?
- What are they? Gillnets or static nets hang in the water catching any creature that swims into them.
- How many UK deaths each year? More than 1,000 porpoises and hundreds of dolphins, including 250 common dolphins.
- What are they? Creel pots are the baskets used to catch prawns, crabs and lobsters. The ropes that join them together and those used to pull them up from the seabed are a danger to whales who get tangled in them.
- How many UK deaths each year? Around 30 minke and 5 humpback whales die in these ropes in the seas around Scotland.
- What are they? Trawl nets are dragged behind a boat scooping up whatever creatures are in its path.
- How many deaths each year? We don't know how many dolphins die in trawls in UK seas but around 10,000 common dolphins, considered to be from the same population, die in these nets in neighbouring Bay of Biscay.
Some porpoises saved
Also in 2004, the EU implemented a regulation requiring monitoring on some fishing vessels, and the use of acoustic devices on some gillnets used by larger vessels in the fleet in some areas, to alert porpoises to the presence of the nets. Implementation of these measures has saved some porpoises.
Pingers might have saved about 228 porpoises in UK waters in 2019, for example – but not if the porpoise lives in the so-called ‘protected’ waters of north Wales or the west coast of Scotland, where no measures are required despite the existence of harbour porpoise Special Areas of Conservation in both areas. This bycatch regulation was replaced in 2019 (by the Technical Measures Regulation), but the mitigation requirements contained within the new law remain largely the same. This new law was a huge lost opportunity, a real chance to improve bycatch prevention measures for marine mammals, seabirds and turtles across Europe was ignored.
A problem all around the UK
Bycatch is a massive danger for harbour porpoises and common dolphins in the southwest of England. But the issue isn’t isolated. Shetland and the southeast of England have both been identified as areas of serious concern for harbour porpoises and at least six humpback whales and 32 minke whales die in the ropes used by the Scottish creel fishery to join and haul the pots used to catch crabs, lobsters and prawns. We are working with the fishing community to fix this solvable problem, but we need more government support.
US law requires action
The UK exports a lot of marine wildlife to the US, including cods, herrings, mackerels and lobsters. Like all fishing nations that export to the US, the UK will have to abide by the US Marine Mammal Protection Act Import Rule from January 2023. This rule only allows the US to import fish or other marine life from fisheries where marine mammal bycatch is not a serious concern, so it’s surprising that the UK has not worked with greater pace to ensure that its fisheries are compliant.
WDC has identified some of the action that the UK and devolved governments must take to meet their legal duty to noticeably and continually reduce the number of deaths in fishing gear.
These include investing in alternative fishing gears to gillnets, implementing sinking groundlines in creel fisheries and increasing monitoring in trawl fleets. Bycatch monitoring should be happening on a much higher percentage of fishing vessels to understand how many dolphins are dying and how these levels reduce as fishing practices change to tackle bycatch.
The Scottish government led the development of the UK dolphin and porpoise conservation strategy, which includes an Action Plan with actions on bycatch and entanglements – we continue to wait for this strategy to be finished and implemented.
The UK government has set up a stakeholder group called CleanCatch to reduce bycatch, including a trial of technical bycatch measures in the southwest. There is no plan that I am aware of for rolling out measures to fleet level to meet the legal requirements of the Fisheries Act 2020.
Most recently, the UK and devolved governments require fishers to report whale and dolphin bycatch. There is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in the world to tell us that this does not work. We need on-board observers and video cameras to collect accurate records.
We need urgent government action
So what have we achieved in the 30 years we’ve known about this horrific problem? The introduction of pingers on some gillnets has saved some porpoises but otherwise, despite meetings, reports and promises, dolphins, porpoises, whales and seals continue to suffer at much the same levels in UK waters.
We need a serious step change from the UK and devolved governments. We need commitment, investment and action. We need goals with deadlines and detailed plans with measures on the water. Fishing fleets will face many changes but it’s time for our governments to take responsibility for the unnecessary and horrific deaths of dolphins, porpoises and whales and accept its duty to save them.
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