Dolphins in Scotland

Bycatch of Dolphins and Whales

Accidental entanglement in fishing nets and gear is the biggest global threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises. In the fishing industry ‘Bycatch’ is the accidental capture of non-target species, which can include anything from small crustaceans up to dolphins, whales and turtles.


Bycatch is sadly increasing in frequency and intensity, a trend which will most likely continue due to increasing population growth and demand for marine food sources, along with industrialisation of fisheries which are expanding into more new areas. Which is why WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) are putting bycatch back on the agenda. Globally, the toll on all whales, dolphins and porpoises is estimated to exceed hundreds of thousands per year. Bycatch of whales, dolphins and porpoises is widespread in UK waters.

WDC bycatch nets

Thousands of porpoises and dolphins die in gillnets and trawl nets each year. Copyright:

There is no area of ocean where this is not a real issue, getting trapped in fishing gear is an awful way to die. Like us, whales and dolphins cannot breathe underwater so when they are captured in nets they panic which can result in them enduring terrible wounds and even broken bones as they try to escape. When they can’t struggle anymore they close their blowhole and drown. Those who are lucky enough to break free can die as a result of their injuries. Some species such as the vaquita and Maui dolphin and North Atlantic right whale are on the verge of extinction from being caught in gillnets and trawl nets.

WDC finshing gear

Large whales, such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale, also get entangled in fishing gear. Copyright:


We’ve talked about how Brexit will impact on Fairtrade, it’s a similar situation with bycatch, most of the protection that whales, porpoises and dolphins have in the UK waters currently comes from the EU so after Brexit these protections could potentially be lost. So this is the time to highlight the issue to ensure any initiatives and protection already given remain in place and we do more to stop this cruel side effect of fishing.

Now is the time to stop this suffering. WDC have created a petition to urge George Eustice and the devolved Ministers to take urgent action, asking them to put laws in place to protect dolphins, porpoises and whales in UK waters once Britain leaves the EU.

What can be done to reduce bycatch?

Acoustic deterrent devices – these have reduced the number of cetaceans caught in gill nets, studies have shown up to a 90% decrease in porpoise bycatch. These work as a ‘pinger’ producing a sound that is aversive. Whilst this certainly does reduce bycatch, cetaceans are extremely sensitive to noise and so are effectively being driven from their preferred costal habitats by the use of acoustic devices. These devices can also be expensive, require maintenence and may interfere with the setting and hauling of the nets, making them unpopular with fishermen.

Barium sulfate – gillnets containing barium sulfate can help make the nets more visible as the barium sulfate reflects echolocation signals.

Observers on boat – A fairly self explanatory one, someone on the boat to spot cetaceans in the water.

Temporary closure – Our knowledge of marine life has improved dramatically so we know when cetaceans are migrating through certain areas, temporary closure of fisheries can decrease bycatch dramatically.

Buy sustainable seafood – by shopping only for sustainable seafood we can create a demand for this and hopefully it can become a standard expected

Fishing regulations and management  – Many fisheries lack management and regulation which is also needed to ensure fish stocks are managed to keep fishing sustainable. In the U.S the Maine Mammal Protection Act limits prohibits the use and sale of marine mammals captured by fisheries, in the UK marine legislation has been in operation for over a century but it has developed in a sectoral way, resulting in a mixture of regional, national, European and international law.

Ethical Superstore is working with Whale and Dolphin Conservation to highlight their campaign against bycatch. Find out how you can do more to help WDC.

Remember you can make a donation to WDC in the checkout with your order, when ordering, in the Delivery Methods and Options page you can select a charity to donate to and simply enter the amount you’d like to give. 100% of this donation goes straight to the charity chosen.

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