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Dolphins Aren’t Discard

Stop dolphins dying
in supertrawler nets

We believe that hundreds of dolphins are killed every year as the result of giant factory ships trawling waters around the UK. Victims of unsustainable fishing, the bodies of these beautiful, intelligent animals regularly wash up on British shores.

With your support, we’re calling for greater transparency and stronger legislation, so we can uncover the true scale of this deadly issue.

What are supertrawlers?

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You may have already heard about ‘supertrawlers’ fishing in waters around the UK. These are huge factory ships measuring up to 144 metres long, with nets the size of 450 tennis courts.

Supertrawlers are capable of catching thousands of tonnes of fish per trip, yet they target very specific pelagic (midwater) fish species.

Infographic showing that a supertrawler can measure 130 metres long, compared to a local fishing boat or London bus, both of which are 12 metres.
Infographic showing that the mouth of a supertrawler net can be 200 metres wide, compared to a dolphin (3 metres), London bus (12 metres), blue whale (26 metres), and and jumbo jet (71 metres).

The supersized nets mean that fish aren’t the only animals that get caught. Dolphins, and any other marine wildlife unfortunate enough to be nearby, are unable to escape and end up being needlessly killed as bycatch.

Bycatch (or ‘by-catch’):

Unwanted fish and other marine wildlife that have been caught by a fishing vessel unintentionally (i.e. “by mistake”).

The devastating impact

We have reason to believe that hundreds of dolphins and other cetaceans are killed annually around the UK as a result of supertrawler bycatch. Sadly, we’ve experienced this issue first-hand along the Sussex coastline, where our teams are based.

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Sussex Dolphin Project, part of the World Cetacean Alliance, recorded 17 dead cetaceans on local beaches in 2020, during the period that supertrawlers were fishing in the channel off the Sussex coast. This is compared to just two for the rest of the year when there was no supertrawler activity.

Since only 10% of bodies wash up on shore, we estimate the true figure to be closer to 170 bycatch-related deaths in Sussex alone.

“We see a surge in dead dolphins on Sussex beaches when supertrawlers are here or during the weeks after. Between them, these supertrawlers have not only caught masses of their target fish species, but tonnes of fish and marine life that they do not want, including marine mammals. These are usually ground down for animal feed or thrown back dead as bycatch.”

Thea Taylor, Sussex Dolphin Project Lead

Lack of accountability

Supertrawlers from around the world are legally allowed to fish in waters around the UK, having purchased fishing rights from the UK government.

However, since supertrawlers don’t enter territorial waters (within 12 miles of shore), they aren’t held to the same level of legislation as the UK’s own local, sustainable fishing community.

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Research has found that supertrawlers “are not adequately monitored for bycatch, despite clear indications that bycatch is occurring”.

Meanwhile, for one local fisher, evidence that he had accidentally caught just one fish was enough to land him in court due to licensing issues, facing heavy punishment.

Andrew Gillam is from a long line of fishers and has personally fished around the Sussex coast, including Brighton, for over 50 years. He says:

“Since the so-called ‘supertrawlers’ have been fishing off the Sussex coast, for the last 30 years, local fishermen have seen significant changes in pelagic catches.

We have witnessed more dead dolphins washing ashore, as well as vast amounts of discarded fish at sea, in deeper waters, since the introduction of supertrawlers.

I was fined and sent to court for catching, as bycatch, a dead sea trout, many years ago. Yet the bycatch of a supertrawler must be horrific.

There is no visibility as to their bycatch and a lack of understanding of the level of damage that this scale of fishing is doing to the ocean as a whole.”

Graham Doswell, Eastbourne fisher, owner of Halcyon (an under 10m vessel) and director of Eastbourne Under 10 Fisherman’s CiC, which has developed the facilities for the Eastbourne inshore fleet on the Quayside at Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne, comments:

“I’ve been an inshore fisherman for over 50 years, following on from my father and grandfather before me. I don’t understand why these industrial ships have such free reign, with little in the way of checks and monitoring, while the fishing community inshore are held to such high account on each fish.

Supertrawlers must have a huge impact on marine life by decimating fish species that form a vital part of a balanced ecosystem.”

How you can support us

Join our mission to protect dolphins by signing and sharing the petition today.

Don’t forget to check your email after you’ve signed and click on the link to confirm, otherwise your signature won’t be added.

Juvenile common dolphin bycatch on Shoreham beach

You can make even more of a difference for dolphins by donating to this campaign.

Help to strengthen our voice in demanding greater transparency and stronger legislation to end bycatch.

ITN image of a supertrawler off the Sussex coast

Looking for answers

The Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association (PFA) represents nine European companies, which operate a fleet of 23 vessels, including the supertrawlers that we’ve observed most frequently in the English channel.

The PFA has defended its sustainability by saying that its members catch fish “with a low impact on the marine ecosystem and based on effective, science-based fisheries management.”

However, when we tried examining the science behind these claims, we found a concerning absence of data.

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In a press release from March 2020, the PFA announced that its vessels had started using ‘pingers’, devices that are attached to fishing gear and emit sounds designed to scare away dolphins. Unfortunately, existing research on pingers hasn’t been able to prove that they effectively reduce dolphin bycatch in pelagic trawl nets.

The PFA said that pingers had been tested on part of their fleet in 2019 and a decision was made to apply pingers to all vessels “in light of the results so far”, but these results have not been made public.

Within the same statement, the PFA claimed to have “a strong and year-long record of engagement, investment and collaboration in research projects to further reduce the already very low level of unwanted bycatch (less than 1% on average) by continuously developing more selective fishing gears, technology and equipment.” However, we were unable to find any results from this research.

Our response

We believe that eliminating (not just reducing) cetacean bycatch is the only way to truly end the unnecessary suffering of dolphins, whales and porpoises around the world.

Therefore, we’re demanding greater transparency and stronger legislation to hold supertrawlers to account, as an essential step towards ending bycatch for good.

Common dolphin bycatch on Black Rock beach, Brighton

“From the hundreds of dolphins being killed off UK shores to the countless marine life lost as supertrawler bycatch around the world: this unjustifiable death and devastation must end.”

Harry Eckman, CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance

Transparency

The World Cetacean Alliance is calling on the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association (PFA) to take the following actions.

Our requests to the PFA

1. Share all data to support their claims of sustainable and low-impact fishing. If the PFA’s fishing practices are “science-based”, there must be evidence to demonstrate this.

2. Make available their results confirming the efficacy of pingers as dolphin deterrents on supertrawler nets (separate from existing data based on pingers being used with static fishing gear, which is unrelated).

3. Share all bycatch (and particularly cetacean bycatch) records from their self-pronounced “year-long record of engagement, investment and collaboration in research projects”, as well as the records from this time to November 2021.

We see no reason why the PFA shouldn’t release this information, as it has previously said that it “firmly believes that sharing of data is essential for achieving good management of fish stocks” and that “[c]ollaboration with the scientific sector is also important […] to prevent bycatch”.

Accountability

The World Cetacean Alliance is also asking the UK government to hold supertrawlers to account with stronger legislation.

Our requests to UK Parliament

Require all fishing vessels over 95m in length, operating within the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone, to:

1. Make their catch records publicly available (“catch” being defined as total catch, including species released as discard or through high grading practices).

2. Report any cetacean bycatch within 24 hours, with the aim of identifying practices that need to be adjusted or removed to eliminate cetacean bycatch.

3. Share all data submitted to ‘sustainable seafood’ certifications. These certifications are designed to help consumers identify seafood products from comparatively sustainable sources; however, they are currently unable to provide enough clear evidence of reduced bycatch in the fisheries that they certify.

Join our mission today

Please add your name to our petition and consider donating to support this campaign.

Glossary

Supertrawler

A huge factory fishing vessel, capable of catching, processing, freezing, and storing thousands of tonnes of fish in a single trip.

While there is no agreed definition, anything over 95 metres long can easily be considered a ‘supertrawler’. The largest trawlers can measure almost 150m long, 20 feet wide, weigh up to 10,000 tonnes, and use nets up to a kilometre long.

These massive ships often stay at sea for weeks or even months, pulling in anything unfortunate enough to be caught up in their vast, perilous nets.

Bycatch

Any fish or marine life that is caught by a fishing vessel unintentionally.

Fishers aim to catch a particular type of fish, but this often won’t be the only wildlife they end up catching, as many fishing methods don’t discriminate between different species. When a fishing vessel catches something “by mistake” that isn’t its target species of fish, this is called bycatch.

Bycatch can include dolphins, porpoises and whales, but also sharks, seals, turtles, seabirds, or any fish species that the vessel hasn’t set out to catch.

Cetacean

A dolphin, porpoise or whale.

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

An area of ocean that extends up to 200 miles offshore.

Nations have certain rights regarding the exploration and use of resources below the surface of the water in their EEZ. However, unlike territorial sea (which extends up to 12 miles from shore), the surface of the EEZ is considered part of international waters.

This means that, each year, supertrawlers from across the world are allowed to operate in the EEZ off the coast of the UK.

FAQ

1. Why is bycatch a problem?

By the Pelagic Freezer-trawler Association’s own estimates, bycatch accounts for  1% of everything they catch. In real terms, this is tens of millions of animals mistakenly caught, killed, and discarded every single day.

Bycatch is one of the biggest threats to cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales), and an increasing but avoidable cause of death for these amazing animals worldwide.

2. How can you be sure that dolphins are dying because of supertrawlers?

Our investigation of dolphins’ bodies washed up on the Sussex shore has indicated that they were victims of supertrawler bycatch. This can be understood from physical clues (e.g. rope tied onto their tails or tangled around their bodies; missing fins that have been cut off to release them from nets; other marks on their bodies from netting) or the absence of certain other physical signs (if the dolphin was otherwise healthy, with no signs of natural injury or illness, then it’s likely that the animal died due to bycatch). We also record significantly higher numbers of dolphin deaths when supertrawlers are present.

3. Isn’t it illegal for supertrawlers to fish in UK waters?

Unfortunately, the UK government continues to sell fishing rights to supertrawlers, which means that they’re legally allowed to fish in waters around the UK, provided they stay within the Exclusive Economic Zone (at least 12 miles out from shore).

4. Why does the UK government sell fishing rights to supertrawlers?

Fishing rights and fishing quotas are a major source of income for governments. Supertrawlers are so large that selling the fishing rights to a single supertrawler ensures a huge amount of revenue very easily, instead of relying on fractions of that amount from many smaller vessels. The government therefore prefers to allocate quotas to supertrawlers, which is devastating to our local fishing industry.

Recently, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has stated that they will be making changes to the way in which fishing quotas are allocated to ensure fairer distribution of fishing opportunities, maximise long term economic investment and return, make allocation more transparent and objective, and incentivise good behaviours. The WCA believes that these aims are inconsistent with the government’s continued sales of fishing rights to supertrawlers instead of small-scale, sustainable fishers in the UK.

5. Where are supertrawlers based?

Supertrawlers are flagged to more than 40 different countries but, in some cases, ships that are flagged to one country are in fact owned by organisations in a different country. The vessels also sail to and operate in every corner of the globe, fishing in every ocean.

6. If the 12 mile boundary means that supertrawlers don’t enter UK territorial waters, why is it our problem?

Dolphins and other wildlife don’t understand lines on a map. Bycatch happens anywhere and everywhere that supertrawlers operate, and the impact of this washes up on our shoreline.

The UK still has some control over its waters beyond the 12 mile territorial limit, in its Exclusive Economic Zone, and can exercise powers over any fishing vessels operating there.

7. Why are you focusing on supertrawlers? Aren’t other types of fishing just as bad?

We recognise that there are many other damaging fishing methods, such as fly shooting and ghost gear, which all result in the deaths of dolphins, whales and other marine life around the world. However, we consider supertrawlers to be one of the worst offenders.

Due to their sheer size, supertrawlers are responsible for an overwhelming amount of bycatch, far more than smaller fishing vessels. One supertrawler can potentially cause thousands of dolphins to be killed in a single year.

Despite this, pelagic trawlers aren’t adequately monitored for bycatch, nor are they held to the same level of legislation and scrutiny as small-scale fishers. We believe that this injustice needs to end and supertrawlers must be held accountable.

If our campaign is successful, we plan to continue our efforts by looking at bycatch caused by other fishing methods and exploring the most effective ways to tackle those.

8. Why can’t dolphins just avoid the nets?

Trawling is a method of fishing that involves dragging or pulling a net through the water behind the ship. With supertrawlers, these nets can stretch almost a kilometre in length, the net mouth can be 200m across, and the nets themselves can cover an area the size of 450 tennis courts. Nothing that encounters these nets is likely to escape. They are simply too big to avoid.

9. What are the rules and regulations on fishing in UK waters?

Currently, inshore fishers (the majority of the UK fishing industry, who fish within 12 miles of land) must follow strict legislation, including limits on how many of each fish species they can catch and a mandatory requirement to report any bycatch of marine mammals within 48 hours.

In comparison, there are no such regulations or monitoring of fishing vessels that operate beyond the 12 mile limit, despite these vessels being significantly larger.

Following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, the government introduced the Fisheries Act 2020, which includes new objectives based on (among other points) concerns regarding the sustainability and ecosystem. These objectives maintain that fisheries must be “environmentally sustainable”, take care that “their negative impacts on marine ecosystems are minimised and, where possible, reversed”, and ensure that “incidental catches of sensitive species are minimised and, where possible, eliminated.” The WCA’s view is that destructive and unregulated supertrawler activity is in direct conflict with these objectives.

10. Do you think that dolphins are more important, from a welfare perspective, than fish?

No, we don’t. We recognise that, even ignoring the issue of bycatch, the global fishing industry catches between 1 and 3 trillion fish every year. Each one of these is a sentient animal whose welfare is compromised and whose life is ultimately ended because of humans’ desire to eat fish.

However, this is a connected but separate issue to cetaceans being killed as bycatch. Our focus on dolphins, porpoises and whales doesn’t diminish the welfare issues affecting other species; it is simply where we, as the World Cetacean Alliance, direct our efforts.

11. What happens to all of the fish that are caught by supertrawlers?

It depends on the species that a supertrawler is catching, but most of the fish from these industrial factory ships end up in cheaper, processed seafood products.

A significant amount will be for human consumption, but some of the catch may also be used for pet food and animal feed.

12. How can I tell if I’m eating fish caught by supertrawlers?

You can’t. Sadly, in the majority of cases, there is no way that consumers are able to identify where their fish came from or what fishing method was used to catch it.

What you can do is write to the company that you buy your fish and seafood products from and ask them to phase out supertrawler-caught fish from their supply chains and product ranges.

13. Doesn’t the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) assure sustainable fishing practices and ensure that there is no bycatch?

The MSC aims to reduce, not eliminate, levels of bycatch from fishing practices. MSC certified products do not guarantee (nor claim to guarantee) there is no bycatch at all. While MSC certified fisheries may have reduced levels of bycatch, they are currently unable to provide enough clear evidence that this is the case.

Dolphins Aren't Discard: stop dolphins dying in supertrawler nets