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Accidental entanglement in fishing gear (bycatch) is the biggest killer of dolphins, porpoises and whales. On Tuesday evening I joined about 150 supporters and fellows of the Zoological Society of London at an evening event looking at this massive problem.  It was presented by the manager of the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme, Rob Deaville. (‘Cetacean’ is the term used to describe whales, dolphins and porpoises.)

George Eustice MP, the UK Fisheries Minister, opened with a short and inspiring video address in which he reiterated the concern he’d expressed when we presented our petition to him at  WDC’s bycatch event in the House of Commons. He emphasised his commitment to reducing the numbers of dolphins, porpoises and whales dying in nets.

The UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme is the organisation that collects dolphins and porpoises who have washed up dead (stranded) on our beaches and performs post-mortems to try to understand the cause of death. Dr Paul Jepson has led the programme since 1993 and he provided the first talk. Paul described what we understand about bycatch in UK waters from the information we have from these unfortunate individuals, collected over an impressive 25 years!

The UK has a world-leading strandings team and huge database of information, and from them we know that bycatch is the primary cause of death identified at post-mortem. In more than half of the recorded traumatic causes of death, bycatch has been shown to be the reason. This includes 17% of porpoise deaths and 46% of common dolphin deaths – the two most commonly affected species. But also in 16% of Risso’s dolphin deaths, which is a great concern to us and much less often talked about.

I took the stage next to talk about whale entanglements, focusing on how painful and traumatic it is for the individuals involved – it’s a horrific way to die. I discussed the endangered North Atlantic right whale and the various species that become entangled in the UK – and particularly in Scottish waters, including minke and humpback whales. I introduced the work that we are doing with our partners at the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Association, Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Marine Animal Standing Scheme, British Divers Marine Life Rescue and Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust to understand and reduce entanglements.

Dr Simon Northridge from St Andrews University spoke about the UK bycatch programme that he leads that collects data from on board fishing vessels and his talk focused on porpoise deaths and how to reduce them.  Vaquitas were a focus of Simon’s talk to begin with. These little porpoises are on the brink of extinction because they were decimated by fishing nets in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico. There are fewer than 30 individuals left and although efforts to save them are ongoing, it’s difficult to see how we can when illegal fishing continues in the area.

Simon also talked about porpoise bycatch in the UK fishing fleet. Although other nations fish in our waters, the data on levels of their bycatch is sparce (and this is something that WDC is working hard on improving). Simon told us that porpoises were recorded in herring nets more than one hundred years ago. Since then, international obligations have been introduced and subsequently requirements for countries to monitor bycatch levels and mitigate against it happening. As a result, we now know that about 1,000 porpoises get caught in UK gillnets each year. Simon talked about potential solutions, including the use of acoustic pingers, gear modifications and using different types of gear, but identified that bycatch is difficult to solve, involving a complex mix of economics, social justice, fishing gear technology as well as the wide range of species that need to be considered.

All of the speakers talked about the welfare concerns associated with dolphins, porpoises and whales becoming entangled in fishing gear. As I said, it’s a horrific way to die. We need to solve this problem, not only because large numbers are dying, but also for the sake of those individuals who endure a terrifying and panful death. I can’t help thinking that if this was happening on land and was visible to the public, efforts to solve the problem would have been much greater and faster.

There was a panel discussion to finish the evening off. Amongst other things, we spoke about the importance of the role of the public – in voicing your concerns. It’s so important that you let governments, supermarkets and certification bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council know that you feel strongly about this and are looking to them to act. They will only take action if they continue to feel the influence from you. You will hear more about this from us in coming months.

The event was well timed because we await the publication of the draft UK Dolphin and Porpoise Conservation Strategy this week. This is the government action plan that the fisheries minister committed to when we presented our petition to him at the end of last year. This Strategy will include bycatch, as well as other issues of concern for UK dolphins and porpoises, such as disturbance and pollution. I will attend a stakeholder meeting about this next week in Edinburgh and a public consultation will happen in coming months – we will provide more information to you about this and how you can get involved when it happens. 

Please make a donation to help us to attend all these vital meetings and push for action to stop dolphins, porpoises and whales dying in fishing gear.