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Whales, dolphins and porpoises around the coast of the UK are being put at risk from human disturbance by a failing legal system that is in need of urgent reform.

As the Easter break begins in the UK, and holiday makers flock to the coast, marine mammals like dolphins are left vulnerable to the increasing problem of disturbance. As a result of flawed legislation that is not fit for purpose as well as a wildlife crime reporting and prosecution process, cases are not recognised and cannot be accurately counted.

It is illegal to disturb whales and dolphins and as more people are using the sea as a source of enjoyment the risk of disturbance is growing. Guidelines have been put in place to help people understand how to behave around marine wildlife, but when these rules are not adhered to and a dangerous disturbance occurs, it can be very difficult or  nearly impossible to ensure the proper legal action because the bar to identify disturbance to enable the police to push for prosecutions is set too high.

According to a report compiled last year by Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group (CMCCG), incidents (which are better recorded there than in any other regions due to dedicated volunteer effort and a hotline number) had tripled in recent years (2014-2021), rising to 371.

Privately owned leisure boats are cited as the biggest threat to whales and dolphins, with coastal users/walkers and paddle sports listed amongst the top three disturbance causes for seals, seabirds and cetaceans as a whole. Paddleboards and canoes were found to be particularly troublesome because they can easily access sites sensitive to marine creatures with little noise. This is the fastest growing water sport.

Incidents are thought to be much higher because many boat users and holiday makers simply do not know what the rules are or how to report incidents they witness. Police forces in the UK have increased their attention and effort to prevent dolphin and other marine species disturbance in recent years. However, Police awareness and ability to deal with marine wildlife crime, and particularly 101 call handlers, needs to be maintained and improved.

WDC is calling for all wildlife crimes, including marine incidents, to be notifiable offences, that legislation used to prosecute wildlife crime should be reviewed and updated, training should be set up for Police call handlers and prosecutors on marine wildlife crime cases, and the number of qualified police investigators undertaking wildlife crime investigations should be increased to counter the threat of disturbance.

Of particular concern is the lack of awareness of the existing laws around disturbance by people using these craft, or who attempt to jump in and swim with dolphins in the sea.

‘Our key aim is to stop disturbance before it happens by raising awareness of the issues’, says WDC’s Katie Dyke. ‘UK seas are a special place for dolphins and whales, being home to more than 20 species, more than anywhere else in northern Europe. They are also a rapidly growing destination for marine recreation and tourism, which is increasing levels of disturbance. Many species are seen close to shore and disturbance happens when people get too near to marine wildlife, disrupt their natural behaviours and cause them stress. A good encounter is one that is enjoyable for you and the whales or dolphins.’

Find out more about watching out for dolphins on the water

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.

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