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Making the future of UK fisheries bycatch-free

If the UK government is to take seriously, as has been promised, the issue of reducing and eliminating bycatch of endangered, threatened and protected species this needs to be enshrined in law.

September 2018

Its good news that protected species bycatch got a mention in the Defra Fisheries White Paper. If the UK government is to take seriously, as has been promised, the issue of reducing and eliminating bycatch of endangered, threatened and protected species this needs to be enshrined in law and here’s why.

The UK is a Party to ASCOBANS “Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas”, a regional agreement on the protection of small cetaceans. ASCOBANS has an overall aim of zero bycatch. OSPAR, another regional convention to which the UK is a member, has repeatedly provided evidence of failing bycatch measures throughout Europe. It’s important that we maintain these international commitments going forward.

Within Europe, the Habitats Directive requires ‘strict protection’ of cetaceans and other Annex IV Species. What ‘strict’ means can be interpreted by each Member State, and if inadequately defined, this can result in poor protection measures. However, we have more specific legislation on reducing cetacean bycatch currently in Regulation 812. The UK is fully compliant with this law and implements it better than almost any other Member State. So this sounds good - we already have bycatch legislation. However, there are some key flaws. Firstly, Regulation 812 only covers cetaceans, not seabirds, sharks or other marine wildlife that are also killed in fishing gear. Secondly, Regulation 812 is being rolled into another, new law (Technical Conservation Measures) being made in Europe, which the UK may not be able to transpose before EU exit. Thirdly, legislation drafted so far indicates that measures are not going to be improved in UK waters and will not be as good as we need them to be to understand bycatch levels well and to reduce cetacean bycatch meaningfully, to enable us to achieve our international objectives.

Currently, none of our existing bycatch measures are implemented by non-UK fishing fleets. So whatever the law, why would this change when we leave the EU? The UK needs the power to enforce bycatch measures in non-UK and UK fleets alike when fishing in UK waters and this can only be done with new and robust legislation. Our UK fishing fleet need a level playing field.

It is clear that our bycatch measures are not fit for purpose. Thousands of porpoises, dolphins and other protected marine species die as bycatch each year, and they have done for decades. When the UK leaves the EU, we will maintain this (or new) legislation but our cetaceans, seabirds, sharks and other protected species will not be any better off.

We need a law that provides a framework to account for cross-taxa bycatch better, achieves the UK’s international commitments under ASCOBANS, OSPAR and the EU Birds Directives and that can transparently put us on a track towards zero bycatch. This can only work if enshrined in domestic law. The law should be robust but flexible.

No fisherman wants to catch a dolphin or a seabird. We want to work with the governments and fishing industries to find solutions that work, and that are robust as they are enshrined in law – for our fleet and those of other nations alike. Tried and tested solutions for ridding us of this blot on commercial fishing are out there and effective in advanced fishing nations around the world. The UK needs to follow their example if it truly aspires to be a global torch bearer for an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.

Sarah Dolman, Policy Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Euan Dunn, Principal Policy Officer, Marine at RSPB.

Follow @dolmansarahj, @whales_org and @Natures_Voice.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.