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The UK’s new ‘Bycatch Mitigation Initiative’ is strong on words but light on action

Ruby Temple-Long, Marine Policy Officer at the RSPB and Chair of the Link Bycatch sub-group, reflects on the publication of the UK Government and Devolved Administrations' Bycatch Mitigation Initiative

August 2022

Although the UK has pledged to tackle wildlife bycatch through everything from national policy and legislation to international agreements and commitments, we’re still not seeing rhetoric match action on our own doorstep. Incidental death in fishing gear is one of the top threats to marine wildlife across the globe. In UK waters, thousands of rare and threatened marine animals continue to be killed unnecessarily as ‘bycatch’ in fishing gear every year, caught on fishing hooks, entangled in nets or wrapped up in ropes.

As more light has been cast on the scale of this issue in recent years, governments have committed to deliver action plans to meet the legal requirement of the UK Fisheries Act to eliminate and minimise the impacts of bycatch. These documents were set to front-load action, translating the global model for bycatch plans of action into a UK context and were supposed to be responsible for ‘outlining measures and actions necessary’ to address threats from bycatch.

Over the last two years, the work evolved and culminated in a multi-species ‘Bycatch Mitigation Initiative’ which was intended to outline how our governments would meet their obligation to minimise and where possible eliminate bycatch of sensitive marine species. However, the long overdue initiative, recently published jointly by the UK and devolved governments, falls short. The Initiative has plenty of fine words, but when it comes to making change on the water, it only outlines actions governments ‘could’ take and ultimately fails to outline any specific, timebound or measurable actions that they will actually implement to make bycatch a thing of the past.

This is all the more frustrating because the UK government actually commissioned a range of informative and useful research to inform the development of the Seabird Bycatch Plan of Action (now subsumed into the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative), which gave an indication of high-risk areas and fisheries, provided the first attempt to estimate seabird mortality and population impacts in UK waters, and even reviewed available mitigation measures to identify priority interventions for seabirds. Yet even with the recommended actions for the highest risk fisheries for seabirds served to the government on a plate by its nature conservation advisors, they didn’t make it into the document. Given the time, effort and resource that has gone into building our collective understanding of the issue, plus the concerning status of the UK’s marine wildlife, it’s not clear why governments aren’t outlining the actions that need to be taken.

In the UK, it’s estimated that over 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises and somewhere between 2,200-9,500 fulmars and 1,800-3,300 guillemots are killed each year by UK fishing activity, as well as countless seals, sharks, skates and rays. While these figures are eye-opening, unfortunately monitoring of fishing activity at sea is very low and covers only a fraction of total fishing effort in UK waters. Targeted monitoring for protected species bycatch requires fishers to accept observers on board and currently covers less than 5% of total UK fishing effort, so the true extent of the problem is likely underestimated, particularly for rarer species.

Other plans of action have been criticised for relying on voluntary measures and self-reporting, yet the UK’s plan doesn’t even do that. Meanwhile, other countries have shown that bycatch is avoidable. In well-managed and monitored fisheries around the world it has been reduced to virtually zero and NGOs like the RSPB and BirdLife International have been at the forefront of these collaborative efforts to address seabird bycatch for almost a decade. This work has resulted in tangible success stories which demonstrate that bycatch can be virtually stopped when action is championed by industry and supported by regulators. Bycatch has plummeted by over 95% in places like Namibia and South Africa, thanks to collaboration between the Albatross Task Force and fishers.

The publication of the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative was an opportunity to follow the leadership shown by other countries to turn the tide on wildlife bycatch and set out the urgent actions that would be implemented to solve the problem through effective mitigation, monitoring and support for industry. While the vision and rhetoric are there, the actions that would give the plan teeth and would ultimately be used to drive bycatch down are absent. This was the chance for governments to commit to solving issues in gillnet, longline and creel fisheries, implementing best practice mitigation techniques, securing transparency and accountability through effective monitoring and investing in innovation and support for fishers. But unfortunately, none of this was in the plan (even though the Initiative has been continually heralded as the place for bycatch action in the Joint Fisheries Statement and UK Marine Strategy).

Nevertheless, at least the underpinning research gives us a better understanding of bycatch risks, gaps and priority areas for action which can be built on to ensure bycatch is tackled in UK seas. UK NGOs and scientists will continue to work to understand bycatch risks and identify measures to keep fishers fishing, while ensuring marine wildlife can thrive. Already, projects are being delivered in the UK to understand and tackle bycatch issues like the Scottish Entanglement Alliance, RSPB and BirdLife International’s trials with Cornwall IFCA and Cornish gillnetterslongline sink rate and mitigation and gillnet risk mapping research, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Birdlife International and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership’s Bycatch Audits, Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s bycatch campaigns and the Cornish marine mammal strandings project.

Ultimately, we know that fishers want to be out at sea making a living, and not catching porpoises or guillemots. And we also know that tackling bycatch would go a considerable way to relieving the pressure that our most-loved marine mammals and seabirds are facing. So, with such fertile soil for bycatch action, it’s time for governments to get serious on this solvable issue.

Ruby Temple-Long is a Marine Policy Officer at the RSPB and Chair of the Link Bycatch sub-group: follow @NaturesVoice

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