In the UK, we are fortunate to have the incredible opportunity to encounter more than 28 species of magnificent whales, dolphins, and porpoises along our stunning coastlines. However, a recent report from an influential House of Commons Committee has shed light on a disheartening truth: the UK Government's efforts to safeguard these charismatic giants fall short of what is truly needed.
The Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee's recent report on ‘Protecting Marine Mammals in the UK and Abroad’, which assessed the risks and conservation measures for marine mammals in the UK, has unveiled a troubling situation for whales and dolphins. The findings reveal that the “current UK legal framework around the protection of marine mammals is incoherent and not sufficient to effectively preserve these precious species.”
For centuries, human activities have wreaked havoc upon marine mammal populations. The devastating practice of commercial whaling claimed the lives of millions of whales, decimating certain populations by up to 90%. With growing commercialisation and increasing technological advancements, humans have introduced an entirely new set of threats, placing marine mammals in even greater jeopardy. Ship collisions, oceanic noise pollution, environmental contamination, and the looming impact of climate change, all pose significant risks. But notably, the recent EFRA Committee inquiry highlighted accidental entanglement in fishing gear, known as bycatch, as the “biggest single threat” to whales and dolphins. It’s a threat that we know results in the tragic death of over 650,000 marine mammals worldwide each year.
The fishing industry, with its various methods aimed at capturing huge quantities of fish and other marine wildlife for consumption, has transformed the UK coastline into a treacherous labyrinth for marine mammals. Vast nets create formidable barriers, huge fishing lines are equipped with countless hooks and lie beneath the surface, and intricate networks of rope lines connected to ocean floor traps pose entanglement hazards. Where marine mammal populations and fishing gear intersect, the tragic consequence of bycatch becomes an unavoidable reality.
The EFRA Committee's report has detailed that the insufficient levels of bycatch monitoring are hindering our understanding of the true number of marine mammals affected by entanglements. Despite the UK Government’s mandatory requirement introduced in 2021 for fishers to self-report bycatch within 48 hours, the response has been disappointingly minimal, with only 18 submissions received.
Bycatch monitoring should not rely solely on self-reporting as there is a clear problem with underreporting whale and dolphin entanglements. The Efra Committee recommends the use of remote electronic monitoring (REM) which would equip fishing vessels with cameras to record instances of marine mammal bycatch. This is something that WDC and the Link coalition fully supports and have been advocating for some time.
The Committee’s report suggests a phased implementation of mandatory bycatch monitoring over several years, with additional time and financial support provided to smaller vessels to meet their obligations. The Committee has set a deadline of December 2023 for the Government to develop an action plan with targets and milestones for enhanced bycatch monitoring to take place.
Despite the UK's commitments to address wildlife bycatch through national policies, legislation and international agreements, a significant disparity exists between the Government’s words and their action. The EFRA Committee has acknowledged some progress has been made through initiatives such as the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative and Clean Catch programmes. However, it’s clear that there need to be more intensive efforts to effectively tackle bycatch. Collaboration between the Government, scientists, NGOs in the Link coalition, and the fishing industry is vital and it’s something we’re striving for. The Committee further recommends the establishment of a UK-wide action plan to reduce bycatch, involving Defra and the devolved administrations, that prioritises the highest-risk fleets by June 2024.
As stewards of our extraordinary marine environment, it’s our duty to protect these magnificent marine mammals. The revelations from the EFRA Committee's inquiry demonstrate that immediate action and collaboration is necessary to transform the UK Government's commitments into meaningful measures that safeguard the future of these remarkable creatures in our coastal waters.
Bianca Cisternino is the Bycatch Coordinator at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, follow @BiancaCistrnino
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