UK fishing vessels ‘underreporting’ whale, dolphin and porpoise bycatch

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Only a handful of instances of accidental bycatch of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been recorded under the UK government’s self-reporting initiative, despite the likelihood that hundreds are being caught by fishing vessels.

Fishers have been encouraged to voluntarily record the bycatch of marine mammals in an attempt to reduce the accidental catch, which would benefit the fishing industry and the health of the seas.

But last year fishers only made 19 reports, even though experts estimate that about 1,000 porpoises, hundreds of dolphins and tens of whales die in UK waters each year. Of the reports made, only two were found to show any mortality or injury to marine mammals, one a harbour porpoise and the other a common dolphin.

The tiny number of recorded bycatch showed that the self-reporting scheme was not working and should be reformed, the group Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) told the Guardian.

Bianca Cisternino, bycatch coordinator at WDC, said: “We were shocked to be told it was such a low figure. This is, of course, a gross underestimation of the actual amount of bycatch occurring, and highlights that self-reporting is an inadequate method for recording deaths of marine mammals in nets and gear.”

She said that fishers themselves wanted to avoid bycatch, not least because catching whales and dolphins can harm their nets, but were not being helped to do so by the government. Using different nets and fishing gear, and other technology on vessels, can help to avoid bycatch in the first place.

“The current UK programme provides no incentives or training for fishers to know how to self-report bycatch and identify the different species caught. The fault lies with [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] Defra and the Marine Management Organisation for not putting in proper measures for monitoring bycatch and relying on self-reporting methods that do not work,” said Cisternino.

Bycatch is the biggest single killer of whales and dolphins around the world. There are more than 5,000 fishing vessels registered in the UK, but only six vessels made reports on accidental bycatch of marine mammals last year.

A spokesperson for Defra told the Guardian that 13 fishing vessels were participating in its self-reporting trial. These 13 vessels reported more than 2,300 hauls between 2018 and 2022, which included 19 reports of cetacean bycatch, according to Defra.

WDC said vessels outside the trial should be reporting bycatch too under rules adopted by the UK’s devolved administrations.

The Defra spokesperson said: “Bycatch is a serious threat to marine wildlife and we are committed to reducing and, where possible, eliminating it. As part of a number of measures we are funding, Clean Catch UK is trialling a mobile app for fishers to self-report their bycatch, which is being validated through electronic monitoring on board participating vessels.

“The project has so far shown that self-reporting can be a useful tool to understand bycatch and further work is being done with fishers to refine the app before it is rolled out more widely.”