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It’s past time to tackle bycatch in the UK

Sarah Dolman, bycatch programme lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, reviews how much we have achieved to prevent bycatch in UK waters in the last 30 years?

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Every week in UK waters about 30 porpoises, dolphins, seals and whales die in UK fishing gear. Often, they will struggle, unable to get free and so they asphyxiate. A large whale might pick up the gear and carry it with them. It often cuts into their skin and their blubber, painfully slowing them down and preventing them from feeding.

I’m Sarah Dolman, bycatch programme lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation and we have been working to prevent these unnecessary and horrible deaths for many years.

Decades of bycatch

It was 30 years ago when Dr Nick Tregenza and colleagues identified a concern about the number of deaths of harbour porpoises in gillnets that were set in the Celtic Sea and scientific concern about the high level of bycatch in this porpoise population remains today. The southwest of England, the most heavily fished region of the UK, is a clear hotspot for the death of porpoises and common dolphins in fishing gear.

How much have we achieved to prevent bycatch in UK waters in the last 30 years?

The English and Welsh cetacean stranding scheme was set up in 1990, and in Scotland in 1992. The collection of strandings data highlighted the issue of bycatch like never before, as the public, out walking their dog or enjoying a family holiday, have found bodies washed up on our shorelines. These bodies often clearly tell their own story, with the telltale injuries suffered as a result of an individual being bycaught in fishing gear and hauled onboard a fishing vessel – broken teeth, damaged fins, and net marks embedded into their skin – even when the fishing gear is long gone.

Understanding levels of bycatch

The UK Bycatch Monitoring Programme is a data collection programme focussed on marine mammals, seabirds, marine reptiles, and sensitive fish species and has been in operation for more than 15 years. Yet bycatch monitoring levels onboard fishing vessels are very low in the UK, just like elsewhere and only 1-5% of certain fishing fleets are observed for bycatch. Populations of harbour porpoise and common dolphins are known to be impacted, yet bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, white-beaked dolphins, other species such as white sided dolphins, striped dolphins, orca, minke whales, humpback whales and some offshore species like Sowerby’s beaked whales and long-finned pilot whales have all been entangled in fishing gear in UK waters. Every bottlenose dolphin that strands in the southwest as a result of bycatch is a serious concern for the population, if the individual is from the very small coastal community. Several Risso’s dolphins have been found dead and entangled in creel ropes, where they are likely foraging on the seabed for their favourite octopus supper. Others survive entanglement in fishing gear, and live with the injuries that result, like in this study of white-beaked dolphins off the Northumberland coast.

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 enquiry in which Whale and Dolphin Conservation gave evidence. The Committee made a number of recommendations, some of which would have been helpful if implemented – like compulsory onboard bycatch monitoring (perhaps unbelievably, it remains voluntary) and adequate levels of bycatch monitoring on fishing vessels, so we can understand levels of bycatch in different parts of the fleet and for a wider range of protected species.

Some action on the water!

About this time, the government introduced an Order that closed the UK seabass pair trawl fishery within 12 nm of the English south coast, following large numbers of common dolphin deaths 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. The Fisheries Act 2020 has since amended this Order.

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But this is not enough..

Also in 2004, the EU implemented a cetacean bycatch regulation. This required 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, in order to prevent them becoming entangled. 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 forsaken.

Bycatch affects UK populations of dolphins and whales

Bycatch levels for harbour porpoises and common dolphins are impacting populations in the southwest of England. But not all of the bycatch problems occur in the waters off the southwest. Shetland and the southeast of England have both been identified as areas of serious concern for harbour porpoises. Humpback whales and minke whales are getting entanglements in high numbers in ropes of the Scottish creel fishery, probably also causing local depletions. We are working with the fishing community to fix this solvable problem, but we need more government support.

A new study undertaken across all European ocean basins recently identified high risk fishing areas for cetaceans and seabirds, including in the waters around the UK. The report identified areas of relatively high risk for white-beaked dolphins in pelagic trawls in the northwestern North Sea, to the north and west of Scotland and in gillnets off Shetland; for Risso’s dolphins in demersal trawls in the Celtic Sea, western English Channel and north-western Irish Sea and Hebrides, in seasonal gillnets in the western English Channel, Celtic Sea and south-west Ireland, and in longlines along the shelf edge west of Scotland and in the Celtic Sea; and for long-finned pilot whales in gillnets on the Porcupine Bank west of Ireland and along the shelf edge in the Celtic Sea west of Brittany seasonally and in longlines along the shelf edge south of Ireland.

US law requires focus on bycatch measures

The UK is a major exporter to the US, including species such as cod, herring, mackerel and lobster. Like all other fishing nations around the world that export fish and shellfish to the US, the UK will have to abide by the US Marine Mammal Protection Act Import Rule from January 2023. Given the evidence presented above that clearly demonstrates poor levels of monitoring and the sustained high bycatch levels for some whale and dolphin populations in pots, gillnets and entangling nets and trawls in UK waters, it is perhaps surprising that the UK has not worked with greater pace to ensure that its fisheries are compliant.

Bycatch solutions exist

WDC has identified some of the measures that are necessary for the UK and devolved administrations to implement to noticeably and continually reduce the number of deaths in fishing gear, in our Goodbye Bycatch campaign. These include investing in alternative fishing gears to gillnets, implementing sinking groundlines in creel fisheries and increasing monitoring in trawl fleets and preparing mitigation strategies to be implemented in the event of dolphin bycatch. Bycatch monitoring should be happening on a much higher percentage of fishing vessels to understand bycatch levels, and how bycatch levels reduce as fishing practices change to tackle bycatch.

The UK has now implemented the Fisheries Act 2020 which includes an objective to “minimise and where possible eliminate sensitive species bycatch” and the Joint Fisheries Statement, a requirement under that Act, is now out for consultation until 12th April. Please visit the WDC website to respond with an email and/or a tweet.

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 the finalisation and implementation of this strategy. The UK government has set up a stakeholder group called CleanCatch to reduce wildlife bycatch, including a trial of technical bycatch measures in the southwest. There is no plan that we are aware of for how to roll out measures to fleet-level to reduce bycatch to meet the legal requirements of the Fisheries Act 2020.

Most recently, the UK and devolved governments have put in place a requirement for fishers to report whale and dolphin bycatch when it occurs. There is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in the world to tell us that this does not work. Dedicated on-board observers and video cameras are required to collect accurate bycatch data.

Much more needs to be done

In the 30 years since the impacts of bycatch affecting the population of harbour porpoises in the Celtic Sea was brought to our attention by scientists, what have we achieved? The introduction of pingers on some gillnets has saved some porpoises but otherwise, despite ongoing meetings, reports and promises, dolphins, porpoises, seals and whales continue to suffer at much the same levels in UK waters.  

A step change is necessary. Commitment, investment and action from UK and devolved governments. We need to pull up our sleeves and implement robust targets to reduce sensitive species bycatch and in a predetermined timeframe. These targets will need detailed plans to be actioned, with measures out on the water – fishing fleets will face many changes if we are to prevent bycatch. You can find more information on the WDC website.

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Blue Planet Society is a volunteer pressure group campaigning to protect the world’s ocean. By utilising effective activism, minimising the use of resources and applying the highest ethical standards, we believe our approach is the future of marine conservation advocacy.