Thea Taylor, project lead for the Sussex Dolphin Project, shares her experience of attending a recent workshop to discuss solutions for wildlife bycatch in UK fisheries. All words by Thea Taylor. Header photo of a dolphin catching a fish in Scotland by Ramon Vloon, via Unsplash.
In March 2022, an unlikely group of inshore fishermen, conservation organisations, and government bodies came together in the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth to discuss wildlife bycatch in a three-day workshop called ‘Hauling Up Solutions 2’, run by the Clean Catch UK initiative.
This event was a follow-up to a previous workshop in 2019, where the focus was on monitoring cetacean bycatch and working to establish potential mitigation solutions. Sadly, two years on, we are still discussing wildlife bycatch as a significant problem in the UK, although alternative gears and gear modifications are being developed with good results. This second workshop discussed the results of alternative gear trials and gear alteration possibilities to take a more active step forwards in wildlife bycatch reduction.
The first day presented results of alternative gear trials that had taken place around the world since the first conference. Many of these produced increased catch quality, some produced increased yield, and all reduced wildlife bycatch, particularly of marine mammals. However, uptake of these methods was limited due to the large initial cost to the fishermen, as well as alterations needed for fishing vessels and reluctance to move away from current fishing methods.
As with most discussions, the real talking started when the conference day ended, and I made some great connections with the Scottish Creel Fishing Association and the Scottish Entanglement Alliance over pizza and a pint (or two!). These organisations were started by Scottish fishermen concerned with levels of marine mammal bycatch and habitat degradation, and are pushing for a ban on mobile fishing gear around portions of the Scottish coast, similar to the trawling byelaw in place along the Sussex Coast for the Sussex Kelp Restoration Project.
One thing that became clear from my discussions with the fishermen was the level of complexity in UK fisheries. Currently, fishermen have to set up in a way that allows them to target several different types of fish at different times of the year in order to make a living. This means that changing gear types isn’t feasible for many of the fisheries in UK waters and we should instead be focusing on gear modifications to get the most engagement possible.
There were some incredibly simple ways that fishers around the UK have been modifying their gear — for example, some fishermen have seen a reduction in porpoise bycatch by using buoyant ropes in panels along their gill nets, which are acoustically reflective and make the nets more visible. Replacing the floating lines in the Scottish creel fishery with negatively buoyant rope and implementing some ropeless technology has the potential to dramatically reduce the entanglement of large cetaceans and basking sharks around Scotland.
It was clear that the inshore fishers really care about reducing wildlife bycatch, not only because it damages nets and reduces their target catch, but also because they genuinely love the sea and want to see a healthy and thriving ecosystem for generations to come.
One of the most interesting parts of the workshop had to be the incredibly sad but fascinating dissection of a juvenile bottlenose dolphin from Sussex by Rob Deaville from the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme. The dissection showed that the juvenile was sadly not yet weaned at around two years old and was the result of bycatch in gillnets.
It is hoped that the information given to the fishing community provides them with a much better idea of which cetaceans are affected by different fishing types and how to look for signs of the cause of death to help with reporting. The new Cefas bycatch monitoring app was promoted during this workshop to give the fishers an easy way to report bycatch in their nets and allow conservation organisations to monitor the levels of bycatch in different fisheries.
Throughout the workshop, the level of engagement from everyone was incredible and some really viable solutions came to light in the discussions. From acoustically reflective foam floats to negatively buoyant lines, acrylic beads on gill nets and reduced soak times, the amount of gear alteration that was discussed and supported by the fishermen brought real hope for the future and showed what we might be able to achieve by working together.