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Dolphins Aren’t Discard

Stop dolphins dying
in supertrawler nets

Hundreds of dolphins are killed every year as the result of giant factory ships trawling waters around the UK.

Since November 2021, vessels that are licensed to fish in British waters have been required to report marine mammal bycatch to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) within 48 hours. However, according to the MMO’s response to our Freedom of Information request, no such data exists.

This means the UK’s legislation is not working and nobody is being held accountable while dolphins and other marine animals continue to lose their lives needlessly as bycatch.

Actions you can take

Sign and share the #DolphinsArentDiscard petition demanding more transparency and regulation on supertrawlers.

Donate to this campaign to strengthen our voice and empower us to achieve more change.

Sign up to receive updates on this campaign and the WCA’s other work to protect dolphins, whales, porpoises and their ocean homes.

Scroll down to find out more about this serious issue and our response.

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 three times the length of the Eiffel Tower.

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”).

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Supertrawlers from around the world are legally allowed to fish in waters around the UK. Although they’re often registered to countries outside the UK, these vessels are permitted to fish in UK seas using fishing rights that have been purchased or swapped from UK-owned and foreign-owned companies.

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 thrown back dead as bycatch.”

Thea Taylor, Sussex Dolphin Project Lead

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An area called Dolphin Head, located in the English Channel off the Sussex coast, has been identified as a potential Highly Protected Marine Area because of the vital habitat that it provides for marine wildlife, including species of fish that are a key source of food for dolphins. This important site lies directly in the path of the supertrawlers, as it’s in the same waters where these giant ships come to fish every year.

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.

Research has found that supertrawlers “are not adequately monitored for bycatch, despite clear indications that bycatch is occurring”. Despite their immense catching capacity, they aren’t legally required to carry independent observers or cameras to record bycatch, and are subject to less strict monitoring than the UK’s smaller-scale boats.

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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.”

The PFA has defended its members by claiming that their activity is “sustainable” and “science-based”. However, when we contacted them to request the data supporting their claims on bycatch reduction, they did not share any evidence with us.

Since November 2021, vessels that are licensed to fish in UK waters have been required to report any marine mammal bycatch to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) within 48 hours. We submitted a Freedom of Information request to the MMO at the end of the previous supertrawler season, asking for cetacean bycatch reports from supertrawlers, but were told that they didn’t have this information – so where is the data?

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.

Our response

We need to uncover the truth. Dolphins are being killed by these giant, industrial fishing ships but – despite the vessels being legally required to report bycatch – no information is available. This means nobody is being held accountable while hundreds of dolphins and other marine animals continue to lose their lives.

Common dolphin bycatch on Black Rock beach, Brighton

We’re calling for remote electronic monitoring (REM), including onboard CCTV, to be introduced for all fishing vessels in UK waters. REM is a reliable and cost-effective tool that’s already used by many other nations to improve data collection, transparency and accountability. We believe that REM will shine a much-needed light on this problem, giving us information that can be used to save dolphins and other victims of bycatch.

“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

Our requests to UK Parliament and the MMO

We’re calling on the UK government and MMO to hold supertrawlers to account by requiring all fishing vessels over 95m in length, operating within the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone, to:

1. Use remote electronic monitoring, including onboard CCTV, as part of licensing conditions for access to UK waters.

2. Make their catch records publicly available (“catch” being defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization as: “all living biological material retained or captured by the fishing gear, including corals, jellyfish, tunicates, sponges and other non-commercial organisms, whether brought on board the vessel or not”).

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.

The story so far

Since the start of this campaign, more than 100,000 people from around the world have joined us in calling for more transparency, accountability, and stronger legislation to end supertrawler bycatch.

Campaign timeline

November 2021

Launched the Dolphins Aren’t Discard campaign and petition.

 

December 2021

9 December: filmed the notorious supertrawler Frank Bonefaas at the Port of Dover to reveal the true scale of these giant factory ships.

21 December: contacted the PFA and asked them to make publicly available the following information:

  • Scientific data to support their claims of “sustainable” and “low-impact” fishing.
  • The results of their trial using pingers to confirm the efficacy of these devices as dolphin deterrents on pelagic trawl nets.
  • All bycatch (and particularly cetacean bycatch) records from their self-proclaimed “year-long record of engagement, investment and collaboration in research projects”, as well as the records from this time to November 2021.

23 December: the PFA responded by inviting us to join an online meeting with them, which we agreed to on the condition that they first share the data that we had requested so that we could discuss it with them. We did not receive any further response.

 

February 2022

Petition passed 100,000 signatures.

 

March 2022

Submitted a Freedom Of Information (FOI) request to the MMO, requesting data on cetacean bycatch reported within the UK EEZ for EU trawling vessels >95m from 2018 to present day.

 

April 2022

13 April: the MMO informed us that they did not hold this information and suggested that we search for the data through an EU online portal.

14 April: asked for further clarification, as it was our understanding that the information is held by the MMO and the link that they had provided had not functioned.

The MMO responded by providing two links to European Commission search portals and indicating that the requirement to report marine mammal bycatch was brought in under a fishing vessel licence condition.

We were unable to find the relevant information by using the search portals.

 

May 2022

9 May: submitted another FOI to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), asking for the same bycatch information.

11 May: DEFRA responded to say that they were forwarding the information to the appropriate sources.

12 May: received a response from the MMO, who had been forwarded the request. The MMO acknowledged that data of this kind would be held by them, indicated that they could not help further with our request, and referenced us back to their correspondence from 13 and 14 of April.

 

June 2022

Submitted a new FOI to the MMO asking for any cetacean bycatch data from the autumn and winter months that had been reported by eleven supertrawlers that we knew to be operating in the English Channel at that time.

 

July 2022

The MMO responded by providing bycatch data for the only UK-registered supertrawler, the Frank Bonefaas, and stated that: “All other vessels are all foreign and requests should be sent to the vessel flag state for their landings data.”

This does not seem consistent with what we know of the legal requirement to report bycatch to the MMO, which has applied to all foreign vessels licensed to fish in UK waters since the 5th of November 2021. We would therefore expect the ten foreign supertrawlers that we specified in our request (which had been fishing in the Channel from autumn 2021 to spring 2022) to be subject to the same mandatory reporting as the Frank Bonefaas.

 

September 2022

Contacted the MMO to seek further clarification and request the following information:

  • All marine mammal bycatch data submitted from the ten foreign supertrawlers on or after 5th November 2021, or else confirmation that these vessels have not reported any bycatch to the MMO since that date.
  • All marine mammal bycatch data reported voluntarily by the ten foreign supertrawlers on any dates prior to 5th November 2021, or else confirmation that these vessels have not voluntarily reported any bycatch prior to that date.
  • A copy of the current fishing vessel license granted to the Frank Bonefaas.
  • All marine mammal bycatch data reported at all times by the Frank Bonefaas, whether submitted voluntarily or as a mandatory condition of its license.

We’re currently waiting for a response.

Join our mission today

Please add your name to our petition, consider donating to support this campaign, and sign up to our newsletters to keep up to date with this campaign.

Sign and share the #DolphinsArentDiscard petition demanding more transparency and regulation on supertrawlers.

Donate to this campaign to strengthen our voice and empower us to achieve more change.

Sign up to receive updates on this campaign and the WCA’s other work to protect dolphins, whales, porpoises and their ocean homes.

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’, with some commentators suggesting that vessels over 55 metres could meet the designation. The largest trawlers can measure almost 150 metres long, 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, fishing waters from the UK to the (often poorly monitored or regulated) west coast of Africa, pulling in anything unfortunate enough to be caught up in their vast 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 fishing industry’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.

Previously, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) banned UK vessels from fishing for bass off the South West coast of England after research found that the pelagic trawling was responsible for very high death rates of dolphins.

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

Unfortunately not. Since the 1980s, UK fishing quota has become a tradable commodity which can be swapped, sold and leased by non-UK interests.

This has led to over 50% of UK fishing quota now being held by Dutch, Icelandic or Spanish companies, allowing their vessels to legally fish in the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (12 to 200 miles from shore).

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

Inshore fishers (the majority [79%] of the UK fishing industry, who fish mainly within 12 miles of land) must follow strict legislation, including limits on how many of each fish species they can catch. There is less monitoring of fishing vessels that operate beyond the 12 mile limit, despite these vessels being significantly larger.

Currently, all fishing vessels in UK waters are required to report any bycatch of marine mammals to the MMO within 48 hours. However, as no bycatch data seems to have been reported by supertrawlers since this requirement was introduced, the legislation simply isn’t fit for purpose in its current state.

Since leaving the European Union, the UK has developed its own fisheries management rules with the introduction of the Fisheries Act 2020. The Act includes new objectives requiring fisheries to be environmentally sustainable and to reduce or reverse any negative impacts on the marine ecosystem, such as ensuring that incidental catches of sensitive species are minimised and, where possible, eliminated.

The Act also includes an objective that requires a precautionary approach be applied to fisheries management. This approach is defined as: “an approach in which the absence of sufficient scientific information is not used to justify postponing or failing to take management measures to conserve target species, associated or dependent species, non-target species or their environment.”

The WCA’s view is that destructive and poorly monitored supertrawler activity is in direct conflict with the objectives of the Fisheries Act 2020. Unless meaningful action is taken to protect dolphins and other marine wildlife from industrial fishing, the UK will be failing in its legal duty to achieve these objectives.

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.

Supertrawlers are foremost among the large-scale commercial fishing vessels that target midwater (pelagic) fish such as mackerel, blue whiting and bass in UK seas and adjacent waters. 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 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. Unlike bottom trawls grinding along the seabed, these mid-water nets are effectively silent. Nothing that encounters these nets is likely to escape. They are simply too big to avoid.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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