UK government must do more to protect whales and dolphins from bycatch

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A new report has confirmed that the UK government is failing to protect marine mammals

Last year, we gave evidence to a House of Commons select committee inquiry, advising that the government introduces remote electronic monitoring (REM) to make bycatch monitoring more effective and hold to account destructive fishing vessels like supertrawlers.

The resulting report, published this week by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, reflects the points that we raised and agrees that “Current levels of bycatch monitoring are insufficient […] despite the requirement for vessels to report marine mammal bycatch.”

The parliamentary committee recommends that “the Government introduces mandatory bycatch monitoring”, including REM, and calls for “an action plan to achieve this, with targets and milestones, by December 2023.”

We need to ensure that the government will take this recommendation seriously. Unfortunately, their track record so far has been disappointing.

Laws to protect dolphins are failing

As part of our Dolphins Aren’t Discard campaign, we recently wrote to MPs in Sussex urging them to take action to stop dolphins dying in supertrawler nets.

Our letter, which was co-signed by 39 leading UK and global marine conservation organisations, asked MPs to support stronger enforcement of legislation to prevent the needless deaths of dolphins and other marine wildlife in UK waters every year.

As a result, one MP recently tabled a question to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on our behalf. We wanted to know what steps Defra was taking to ensure that supertrawlers fulfilled their legal duty to report marine mammal bycatch to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).

Photo of a juvenile common dolphin, a suspected victim of supertrawler bycatch, found dead on Shoreham beach in Sussex.

Avoiding responsibility

The response from a government minister fell far short of answering our question. They simply repeated what we already know: that fishing vessels are required under licensing conditions to report bycatch to the MMO and that the relevant authorities (including Defra) had been informed.

However, the real issue is that the authorities don’t appear to be enforcing this licensing condition. When we asked the MMO for reports of supertrawler bycatch last year, they told us that the data didn’t exist, despite the requirement being in place since November 2021.

We believe that supertrawlers can’t be relied on to report bycatch voluntarily, and now it seems that even mandatory reporting isn’t being properly enforced.

Photo of the Alida, a 99m Dutch supertrawler, fishing off the coast of Brighton in the English Channel.

Lack of monitoring

The government’s response also referred to the Sea Mammal Research Unit, claiming that they “have carried out monitoring of pelagic trawlers targeting herring and mackerel for a number of years and reported no bycatch of marine mammals in these fisheries in recent years.”

After we contacted the Sea Mammal Research Unit, we were told that they only monitor the UK pelagic trawl fleet, at a rate of 4-5 trips per year.

It’s no surprise that UK fishing vessels were recently found to be under-reporting bycatch, since monitoring just a few trips each year isn’t enough to ensure reliable self-reporting.

Importantly, this also confirms that there’s no such monitoring of the larger, non-UK-flagged supertrawlers that are our primary concern.

We demand accountability

The UK government has a legal duty to prevent bycatch – but thousands of dolphins and other animals continue to be killed every year. It’s clear that we need more monitoring and stronger enforcement of legislation to protect marine wildlife.

You can help by joining our campaign! Write to your MP, make a donation to support our work, and sign our petition to call for urgent action to protect dolphins.

Header photo of common dolphins in the UK by Ray Harrington, via Unsplash.

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