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Why now is the time for government action on dolphin deaths in fishing nets

Thousands of dolphins, porpoises, whales, seabirds, seals and other protected species die in fishing gear in UK waters each year. This is known as ‘bycatch’ and inadequate government action has meant that it’s continued largely unabated for decades.

After our exit from the European Union, the UK implemented the Fisheries Act 2020. Contained within this Act – following lobbying from WDC - is an objective to ‘minimise and where possible eliminate sensitive species bycatch’. This means that the government is legally obligated to protect dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, seabirds and other protected species from entanglement in fishing gear in UK waters.

Porpoise in net with hashtag

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We're not impressed

Those responsible for fisheries within the UK are required to develop what’s called a ‘Joint Fisheries Statement’ (JFS), to set out the government policies for achieving the objectives in the Fisheries Act – including the one on preventing the bycatch of protected species like dolphins.

However, in an 82-page document, the JFS only contains one paragraph on sensitive species bycatch. It provides no detail on how we will stop whales and dolphins suffering and dying in fishing gear but refers to delivery through the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (BMI). The BMI is a policy document, drafted by Defra and signed up to by all four government administrations, whose single aim is to meet the legal requirements of the Fisheries Act 2020 to tackle bycatch.

Well, that sounds pretty good, except the BMI is not available yet. Also, WDC have provided comments on a couple of drafts of the BMI, as have other groups we work with such as RSPB, and we have not been impressed – we don’t think it meets the legal requirement of the Fisheries Act.

This humpback died after becoming tangled up in fishing gear in Scotland © James Appleton
This humpback died after becoming tangled up in fishing gear in Scotland © James Appleton

You can see the creel basket and rope tangled around this whale's tail and flipper These are used to catch prawns, lobsters and crabs, and at least six humpback whales and 32 minke whales are killed every year in Scotland when they get entangled in them.

Lack of detail

We have been asking the UK’s fisheries authorities to commit to targets to continually reduce the numbers of dolphins dying and put us on a track to eliminating dolphin porpoise and whale deaths in nets within a specified timeframe. We want robust actions embedded within the JFS and BMI. Our neighbours in France, Spain and Portugal have set bycatch reduction targets and timeframes to deliver these - the UK needs to follow suit. In the UK, we just don’t have good enough monitoring requirements to record the numbers of dolphins dying or to know if any measures put in place to reduce these deaths are working.

We need practical action at sea and the JFS provides an opportunity to enshrine this into fisheries management, but as it stands there’s no sign of that and it’s a real lost opportunity.

The Fisheries Act gives the UK and devolved governments a clear legal duty to stop dolphins, porpoises, whales, seabirds and sharks dying in fishing nets, and the JFS and BMI should set out how this will be achieved. But they don’t. Specific measures, monitoring and timeframes are needed but instead, there is a lack of detail.

This young dolphin died in a fishing net off the coast of Cornwall © CSIP-ZSL
This young dolphin died in a fishing net off the coast of Cornwall © CSIP-ZSL

You can imagine the fear this little dolphin felt as she tried to escape. You can see the marks that the net made as it cut painfully into her beak.

Questions need answers

We need to see how the risk of bycatch will be assessed; what events will trigger action? Who is responsible for doing what? Where are the high-risk priority areas and fleets? How will success be measured and how will these efforts be funded and monitored? All this needs to be laid out - it’s pretty standard stuff - but it’s missing.

We need to test alternative types of fishing gear and roll them out, along with other technical solutions, in fleets, such as gillnet fisheries, where bycatch levels are high for marine mammals and seabirds. We also need to test no-fishing zones in high-risk areas, either permanently or at specific times of year when risk is high.

Holistic action

At-sea monitoring across fishing fleets happens at very low levels so the true extent of bycatch of dolphins, porpoises, seabirds and other protected species is unknown. Improved monitoring at sea through Remote Electronic Monitoring (with cameras) and observer programmes are essential to understand bycatch rates and to track the success of measures intended to reduce them.

Finally, all this needs to clearly link up with Fisheries Management Plans (FMPs). FMPs need to take a holistic, ecosystem approach and consider the whole marine environment and not just fish populations. For example, bycatch needs to be considered in otherwise ‘well managed’ fisheries such as MSC-certified hake. Currently, a fishery with high levels of dolphin deaths can still be certified as ‘sustainable’ as the criteria for certification only really look at the sustainability of the fish population, not at the wider environment in which it operates.

It's not rocket science

The UK and devolved administrations need to show ambition and commitment. We’ve known for 30 years that dolphins, porpoises and whales are dying in fishing nets in huge numbers. Saving them really isn’t rocket science - it just needs the political will. Together we can keep whales and dolphins out of our nets, and we must do it now.

Watford goalkeeper, Ben Foster, is supporting our campaign.

Campaign support

We’re proud that Watford FC and former England goalkeeper Ben Foster is supporting our campaign. Ben said:

'It’s my job to keep things out of nets – to make important saves. So I got involved with the #NotInOurNets campaign to use my role in football as a platform for change, to help save whales and dolphins and keep them out of nets.

Around 1,000 goals hit the back of the net in a Premier League season, and more than 1,000 dolphins and porpoises die in UK fishing nets every year. By putting pressure on our fisheries ministers, we can keep dolphins safe in UK seas.'

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