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Porpoise dies after becoming entangled in fishing gear. Image: Nick Davison
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The UK government isn’t doing enough to combat the tragedy of dolphin deaths in fishing nets

In the UK, we are fortunate to be able to see more than 28 species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises around our stunning coastlines. However, a report has shed light on a disheartening truth - the UK government's efforts to safeguard these charismatic climate giants fall woefully short of what is needed.

The government's Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee recently assessed the risks and current conservation measures for marine mammals in the UK. What they discovered paints a troubling picture for whales and dolphins. The findings reveal that the current legal framework in the UK, which is meant to protect these magnificent marine species, is:

'incoherent and not sufficient to effectively preserve these precious species.'

Common dolphin
Common dolphins are one of the species that are affected by these failings.

The menace

For centuries, human activities have wreaked havoc upon marine mammal populations. The devastating practice of commercial whaling claimed the lives of millions of whales, decimating some populations by up to 90%. In more recent times, humans have introduced an entirely new set of threats, placing marine mammals in even greater jeopardy. Ship collisions, noise pollution, environmental contamination, and the impacts of the climate crisis, all pose significant risks. However, the Efra inquiry has specifically highlighted accidental entanglement in fishing gear, known as 'bycatch', as the primary menace to whales and dolphins, resulting in the tragic deaths of more than 650,000 marine mammals worldwide each year.

Common dolphins at surface

Can you help protect these awesome beings?

The fishing industry, driven by its need to capture huge quantities of fish and other marine wildlife for human consumption, has transformed the UK coastline into a treacherous labyrinth for whales and dolphins. Vast nets create formidable barriers, fishing lines extending up to 100km are equipped with countless hooks and lie beneath the surface, and intricate networks of rope lines connected to ocean floor traps pose entanglement hazards. Like us, whales and dolphins breathe air, so when they get tangled up in a net, rope or fishing line it can be a race against time to reach the surface to take a breath. The more they struggle, the more entangled they can become.

Entanglement in fishing gear is the biggest killer of dolphins, porpoises and whales globally, and it's a major issue in UK seas.
Entanglement in fishing gear is the biggest killer of dolphins, porpoises and whales globally, and it's a major issue in UK seas.

Plan A wasn't good enough

In 2021, the UK government introduced a mandatory requirement: fishers themselves must report their bycatch within 48 hours. The response has been disappointingly minimal. The report reveals that only 18 submissions were received, highlighting that there is a clear problem with relying on self-reporting.  Many entanglements of whales, dolphins or other marine mammals go unreported which hinders our understanding of the true number and location of whales and dolphins affected.


Harbour porpoise entangled in gill net on a beach in Wales
It's likely this Harbour porpoise suffered a horrible death as she struggled to free herself to reach the surface to breath.

Time for plan B

To improve bycatch monitoring, the Efra Committee recommends the use of remote electronic monitoring (REM), which means putting cameras on fishing boats to record when and where marine mammals get caught. We fully support this and have been requesting it for some time. The report also suggests a phased implementation of compulsory bycatch monitoring over several years, with additional time and financial support provided to smaller vessels to help them comply. The Committee has set a deadline of December 2023 for the government to develop an action plan with targets and milestones for this monitoring to take place, and recommended the establishment of a UK-wide action plan to reduce bycatch once and for all.

A trawl
A more sufficient bycatch monitoring method is vital.

The government has made big promises to address this issue to stop whales and dolphins from getting caught in fishing gear, but there is a big difference between what they say and what they do. The Efra Committee has acknowledged that some progress has been made, but it's clear that we need to do a lot more.

Collaboration between the government, scientists, NGOs like us at WDC, and the fishing industry is vital, and we're working hard to make it happen.

Common dolphin (delphinus delphis) Gulf of California Mexico.
We must do more to protect these awesome beings.

They depend on us

As stewards of our extraordinary marine environment, it’s our duty to protect the magnificent whales and dolphins we share it with.

These revelations serve as a massive wake-up call. We need to come together urgently to transform the UK government's commitments into actions and introduce meaningful measures that safeguard the future of these remarkable creatures in our coastal waters, for their sake and ours.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help protect whales, dolphins and porpoises from their biggest killer, bycatch.