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Harbour porpoise. Image: Charlie Phillips/WDC
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Speaking up for the little guys – WDC in action

Whales and dolphins face so many dangers. These intelligent beings are crucial for the wellbeing of the ocean and therefore our planet. If their future is in jeopardy, then so is ours. These threats affect not only the giants - celebrated species like humpback whales, but also the smaller species that we maybe hear less about.

That’s why we’re participating in a meeting where countries come together to agree ways to protect dolphins, porpoises and the smaller whales.

Leaping harbour porpoise
In February, we helped secured the highest level of protection for these little guys! © Chrys Mellor

What is the meeting?

Next week, we’re headed to Bonn in Germany for the annual meeting of a group with a very long name: the Agreement for the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of (Northern) Europe, or ASCOBANS as it’s known. ‘Cetaceans’ is the collective term for whales, dolphins and porpoises, and ‘small cetaceans’ are the dolphins, porpoises and small whales – everyone except the great whales really.

Essentially, it’s a group of northern European countries who come together annually to address the threats facing dolphin, porpoise and small whale species. These threats include pollution, underwater noise and, above all, their biggest killer – accidental entanglement in fishing gear, or ‘bycatch’. The Advisory Committee includes organisations like WDC and it meets to discuss the steps needed to address these issues, the research that has been carried out and the progress of measures that have already been adopted. Together, the participating countries commit to taking concrete actions to improve the conservation of these small but magnificent beings.

Harbour porpoise

Can you help protect these beautiful beings?

What have they agreed?

Over the years, several specific conservation plans for particular species have been established, including initiatives aimed at protecting the incredible harbour porpoise. This species may be small but there are more of them in northern European waters than any other whale, dolphin or porpoise species, and they are in desperate need of real protection.

It’s estimated that 1,500 harbour porpoises are killed every year in the fishing gear deployed within the UK's seas, with gillnets being the primary culprit. Gillnets hang as huge walls in the ocean, and where gillnets and harbour porpoise populations overlap, deadly entanglements are inevitable. To address the devastating impacts this could have on populations, one of the key ASCOBANS agreements is to stop any whales, dolphins or porpoises dying in gillnets in its member nations, including the UK.

Harbour porpoise deceased after becoming entangled in fishing gear.

Thousands of porpoises suffer a slow agonising death every year as the result of entanglement in fishing nets. © Alexei Birkun Jr.

Are they doing what they say?

While ASCOBANS gathers countries and encourages them to commit to what they agree to, what truly matters is the fulfilment of these commitments. Sadly, despite the adoption of detailed and binding conservation plans and resolutions outlining exactly what needs to be done, countries struggle to implement the measures. A glaring example is the monitoring of bycatch numbers, which is crucial to tackling the issue. Regrettably, this monitoring is notoriously missing, with only 1% of fishing fleets in the UK adopting this practice.

More must be done. Politics and a lack of funds for marine protection hinder member states from reaching the zero bycatch goal. The UK stands out for its research efforts, but scientific studies alone are insufficient for real protection, and the political will is often lacking.

Porpoise entangled in fishing gear
Porpoise found stranded on beach after becoming tangled in fishing gear

Gillnets present a significant risk to small cetaceans because they target fish species of a similar size. (left) ©CSIP ZSL (right) © Alexei Birkun Jr

How do we help?

This is where organisations like WDC step in. We actively participate in meetings like this one,  bringing our expertise to the table.  We engage with expert groups, raising criticisms where necessary and making concrete proposals or demands to ensure that country representatives uphold their commitments. This is sometimes challenging and laborious, but we are known for our persistence!

We will continue to contribute our own documents, analyses and research until these intelligent, sentient beings get the protection they need and deserve. Our efforts are extremely highly regarded and our work is greatly appreciated by ASCOBANS. A few years ago we were recognised for our crucial role and received the environmental award received the environmental award of the Convention.

WDC speaking at ASCOBANS
WDC'S CEO Chris Butler-Stroud receiving ASCOBANDS environmental award.

We will continue advocating for a world where every whale, dolphin and porpoise, big or small, is safe and free.

At the end of next week, we’ll once again sit around the table with government representatives, scientists, and other NGOs. We will continue voicing our demands, calling for more effective regulation of fisheries and making proposals for conservation measures. We will be there to give dolphins and porpoises a voice and keep a close eye on the governments of the member states so we can hold them to their promises on your behalf.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us protect whales, dolphins and porpoises from the harms they face.

About Fabian Ritter

Leiter Meeresschutz - Fabian Ritter ist Biologe und leitet bei WDC den Bereich Meeresschutz.