Bycatch – what’s the issue?
August 19, 2021
In the future, dolphins, porpoises and whales won’t get caught in fishing gear – that’s our goal. Entanglement in fishing nets and gear is known as ‘bycatch’ and it’s the biggest threat to dolphins, porpoises and whales on the planet today.
In the future, dolphins, porpoises and whales won’t get caught in fishing gear – that’s our goal. Entanglement in fishing nets and gear is known as ‘bycatch’ and it’s the biggest threat to dolphins, porpoises and whales on the planet today. Nobody, including fishers, wants them to suffer this way.
Today, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of dolphins, porpoises and whales die in fishing gear each year. This is unacceptable. Fishing should be conducted in such a way that the risk of a whale or dolphin becoming entangled is so low that it’s no more than a very occasional tragic accident.
WHY DO DOLPHINS AND PORPOISES FIND IT SO DIFFICULT TO AVOID FISHING NETS
What is more perplexing is why dolphins and porpoises, with their sophisticated navigation and communication systems, find it so difficult to spot and avoid the fishing gear. There are several theories and it’s likely that all of these play a part.
Some accidental captures might happen when a dolphin is chasing a fish, trying to scavenge fish from a net or is just plain curious about what is going on. Dolphins are known to forage on fish caught in a net or on a hook. Perhaps they are successful most of the time and so have learnt the reward is worth the risk. However, they may not always be successful and that is when they become entangled or trapped.
It’s also possible that they are distracted when looking for food, socialising and playing. A distracted dolphin may blunder into fishing gear. At times, dolphins might drift into nets when they are sleeping. When a dolphin is sleeping his or her echolocation ability may be reduced and this may mean that they don’t spot a net.
Sometimes, it could be because the dolphins don’t ‘see’ the nets. Dolphins and porpoises rely on echolocation to interpret the world around them. They produce high frequency clicks which create sound waves. When the sound waves hit an object and bounce back, the dolphins pick up the echoes and create acoustic pictures of their environment. Some fisheries use nets with very thin mesh which may be difficult for a dolphin to detect. Perhaps such materials don’t produce an echo and so it could be that dolphins and porpoises swim ‘blindly’ into them, simply not detecting that they are there. Or perhaps they can detect the nets but do not perceive the danger.
WHY WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT EVERY WHALE OR DOLPHIN WHO DIES
Dolphins, porpoises and whales are smart, sociable, sentient and family-orientated beings. Death in fishing gear is a frightening and horrible way to die. It can be painful and slow resulting from injuries sustained while trying to escape or starvation. Even when death comes more quickly, through asphyxiation, there is no control over the time taken to die. The individual suffers, and for longer than allowed for farm animals in an abattoir.
When a dolphin, porpoise or whale becomes entangled in fishing gear, it can also impact their dependants and other members of their family or group. As we learn more about the cultures and societies of whales and dolphins, we are beginning to understand that evaluating bycatch cannot rely on numbers alone.
A population could seem healthy when you look at how many individuals there are. If more are being born than are dying in fishing gear, then that might appear to be sustainable. But it completely fails to take into account the roles of individuals within groups and populations. What if the whale who dies after being wrapped in fishing rope for months is the matriarch who holds all the knowledge about the best places to find food? Or if the dolphin who dies in the trawl net is a mother whose young calf is left behind?
Bycatch is a waste of life. Consumers want to know that the food they eat did not involve suffering. Fishers don’t want to catch dolphins and responsible fishing should include a duty of care to prevent it.
With new technology such as electronic monitoring, improved transparency is increasingly expected in fisheries and the true extent and suffering experienced as a result of bycatch will become much more apparent. These changes will also benefit those working in the fishing industry through improved safety conditions.
Alternative fishing gear can be a solution – for example, switching from nets to pots can reduce bycatch significantly in some regions, like the Baltic where porpoises are critically endangered- and there are ways to make existing gear safer for ‘non-target’ species. Smart management can also keep fishing vessels away from important habitats and enable them to avoid other areas during sensitive periods, such as calving.
Every death is a tragedy that we had the power to prevent.
SO WHAT IS WDC DOING?
There is hope. WDC is appointed by governments to taskforces in the UK, US and New Zealand and we engage with decision-makers all over the world to reduce bycatch in specific fisheries.
Most bycatch happens in gear that is actively fishing. We need to be aware that bycatch is not adequately monitored or reported and there are very few cases where effective action has been taken to reduce it. So we call on governments of all fishing nations to put laws and measures in place to require robust dedicated bycatch monitoring, prevention and mitigation. A duty of care to prevent bycatch should be expected as standard in all fisheries.
We are working with industry partners and manufacturers to modify fishing gear as a way to reduce risk. Our campaigns have pressured government managers to take action. We provide expertise to stakeholders and we are educating the public about possible solutions.
It’s also important to remember that fishing gear has become stronger and lasts longer than in the past. Once made of natural fibres, most gear is now made of lower cost but stronger plastic polymers. Dolphins may have bumped into fishing gear for millennia but were able to break free from weaker natural fibre ropes and nets. The newer plastic-based gear is nearly impossible for a dolphin or porpoise to break free from. We’ve a long way to go but we are hopeful that advances in technology will make fishing gear more detectable to dolphins and porpoises. Pingers are proving successful at warning porpoises away from gillnets in some areas by emitting beeping noises. Scientists are testing the impact of using thinner twine which is easier to break.
IF I CHOOSE TO EAT FISH, WHAT CAN I DO?
Choose carefully to avoid products from fisheries where dolphins are likely to have died. Even seafood that has an eco-certification label (like Marine Stewardship Council or ‘dolphin friendly’) does not mean that dolphins have not died.
The fishing method that we can be most confident about is pole and line caught or one-by-one fishing is where fish are caught using a hand-line, for tuna, mackerel and other species, and this fishing method has the lowest impact on non-target species. These fisheries are not bycatch-free, but dolphins are rarely caught and when they are, they are released alive.
• Join a local beach clean – or start your own! Every piece of litter, rope or net taken off a shoreline or out of the marine environment is one less hazard to float in the sea. If you can’t remove it, at least cut any loops – as these are particularly hazardous.
• Talk to your friends and family and share your concerns.
• Support WDC as we work with fishers and managers to develop new gear types and regulations to reduce this threat or sign up to our newsletter, where we will keep you up to date with our campaigns and ask you to join us when we ask for stronger measures to protect whales and dolphins.