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Thousands of whales, dolphins and porpoises die in fishing gear around the UK coast every year. For some populations, such as the common dolphins off the south and south west coasts of England, it’s a threat to their survival.

Accidental entanglement in fishing gear is known as ‘bycatch.’

The species most affected around the UK are harbour porpoises and common dolphins. When the bodies wash up on beaches, post-mortems are carried out. From this, we know that bycatch has been the major cause of death in harbour porpoises and common dolphins since these examinations began in 1990.

Harbour Porpoises

Harbour porpoises are worst affected by bottom-set gillnet and tangle net fisheries. These are nets that are anchored to the seabed and hang in the water, like a wall. As harbour porpoises feed on or near the seabed, they can easily become entangled.  The high levels of bycatch across the countries of the North Sea, are staggering, with estimates of around 1,500 deaths each year by the UK fleet alone. These deaths represent a massive threat to the conservation of porpoises around the UK.

What is being done?

As with most of the world, we don’t know the precise size of the problem because the monitoring of fisheries is limited. However, the number and scale of trawl fisheries in waters to the west and south-west of the UK (mainly large fleets from other EU countries), together with the number of dolphins washing up on UK beaches, suggests that thousands of dolphins, porpoises and whales - possibly many thousands - are dying every year. It is unacceptable.

Harbour porpoise


The UK Government has at least, acknowledged the problem. In 2003 they published ‘the UK Small Cetacean Bycatch Response Strategy’ as a step towards finding a solution. Trials have been running since 1998 to investigate the effectiveness of acoustic deterrent devices (‘pingers’) on static or ‘set’ nets. Pingers are small, electronic devices attached to fishing nets that emit sounds at the frequencies to which dolphins and porpoises are most sensitive. The aim of pingers is to produce a sound that either causes them to avoid the area, or alerts them to the presence of the nets.

The UK trials revealed a dramatic reduction in harbour porpoise bycatch when pingers were used on the nets. But, the devices are costly, require maintenance and may interfere with the setting and hauling of the nets for UK fisheries. While this technology has proven to be very effective in the US, the efficiency of pingers used in the UK has been seen to decrease over time, and also when used in commercial fisheries rather than controlled trials. In response to the high dolphin bycatch rate, mitigation trials using pingers began in 2001. However, pingers have not been shown to be effective for species other than harbour porpoises and may cause disturbance issues.

Dolphin escape hatches

Further trials have focused on developing a ‘dolphin exclusion’ device. This is a selection grid (typically made of steel bars) positioned within the net that allows fish to pass through and further into the net, but which deflects dolphins upwards to one or more escape hatches in the top of the net. This exclusion device was also trialled in combination with pingers. These trials have produced mixed results and, after six seasons of monitoring and development work, the trials have yet to produce a workable and successful configuration.

What next?

It is important to make sure we don’t just move the problem somewhere else. Restrictions to reduce fishing are unpopular and difficult to impose in multi-national fisheries. In the UK, other than pingers on the nets deployed by some of the largest vessels, there are still no measures in place to reduce what is likely to remain the main conservation and welfare problem affecting whales, dolphins and porpoises around our coasts. WDC is committed to working with government and fisheries stakeholders to dramatically reduce the numbers of whales and dolphins dying in fishing gear around the UK coast.

What is WDC doing?

Following submission of WDCs UK bycatch petition, which more than 75,000 of you signed, we got a commitment from the UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice to put a UK Bycatch Strategy in place to reduce the deaths of dolphins, porpoises and whales in fishing gear..

We have had a number of meetings with the UK and devolved governments and are working closely with them, and other stakeholders, to deliver on this commitment. We hope an effective UK Bycatch Strategy will be in place as soon as 2019!

We are lobbying for the Strategy to include the collection of better data and changes to the way fish are caught, including gear modifications, gear marking, and possible fishing restrictions.

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