CONSERVATION ORGANISATIONS are concerned that delays due to the strategy of UK governments on so-called ‘bycatch’ will result in  more of our globally important seabird populations being needlessly killed.

At the start of 2021, the UK government declared this to be a ‘Marine Super Year’,  and promised the publication of a long-awaited Bycatch Mitigation Initiative. This would outline the actions needed to tackle the problem of seabirds and other marine species unintentionally being caught and killed by fishing hooks and nets in UK waters.

However, with just days to go, the plan that was promised for 2021 is still missing, with every month the plan is delayed leading to unnecessary and preventable deaths among vulnerable ocean wildlife. Despite a raft of legislation and policies designed to protect marine animals and prevent bycatch, alongside Government promises to protect and restore our seas, words have not yet become action.

In 2020, Defra published a study revealing the first UK-wide estimates of seabird bycatch mortality in UK waters. The research estimated that each year somewhere between 2,200-9,100 fulmars and 1,800-3,300 guillemots are unintentionally caught and killed in fishing gear.

Most seabird bycatch is thought to happen in longlines – literal ‘long lines’ carrying thousands of baited hooks – operating in the north of Scotland and in gillnets – walls of nylon netting – in the south west of England. At least ten seabird species have been recorded as bycatch in UK waters (many of which are included in the Red or Amber Lists of Birds of Conservation Concern):

  • Fulmar – amber-listed
  • Guillemot – amber-listed
  • Cormorant
  • Gannet – amber-listed
  • Great-black backed gull – amber-listed
  • Great northern diver – amber-listed
  • Herring gull – red-listed
  • Kittiwake – red-listed
  • Razorbill – amber-listed
  • Shag – red-listed

Further studies have revealed that bycatch is also responsible for catching and killing around 1,000 harbour porpoises, 250 common dolphins, 475 seals, 35 minke and humpback whales in gillnets and other fishing gear in UK waters every year.

While the findings are eye opening, especially for fulmar, current figures are likely to underestimate the true scale of the problem as only UK-flagged vessels – a portion of the overall longline fleet – and limited observer data (ranging between less than one per cent to five per cent of total fishing effort across three broad gear types) have been assessed. What is clear however, is that there is a bycatch problem in UK waters in need of urgent action.

Kirsten Carter, Marine Principal Policy Officer at RSPB said: “Seabirds are among the most threatened birds globally, and the UK is home to some of the world’s most important ‘seabird cities’ in the summer. Sadly, our seabird populations are no exception to the global picture – many are in serial decline from an array of threats. While we don’t have solutions to all of these, thankfully bycatch is preventable and we can take swift action to address it.

“We’ve been working with the fishing industry for almost two decades to implement simple measures like ‘bird-scaring lines’ to prevent seabird bycatch, and have consequently saved thousands of albatrosses and petrels every year in fisheries in Namibia and South Africa. It’s time for the UK to put in place the same measures to protect birds like fulmars – our own ‘mini albatrosses’. Like these legendary birds, fulmars are very long-lived (over 50 years in some cases), mate for life and will clock up thousands of air miles, yet over 9,000 could be drowned every year on fishing hooks. We have enough information to act.

“Shoppers don’t want their fish tea to come with a side of dead seabirds or dolphins, the fishing industry doesn’t want the needless deaths and the solutions are there for the taking and have been successfully deployed elsewhere. So surely it’s time for the governments of the UK to make it happen.”

Sarah Dolman, Bycatch Programme Lead at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) said: “Entanglement in fishing gear is impacting populations of porpoises, dolphins and whales in UK waters – and it has been this way, largely unchanged, for decades. We need better monitoring of fishing fleets, so we can fully understand the extent of the problem, and at the same time, we urgently need the UK and devolved governments to implement robust, effective and timely measures to prevent bycatch, as required under UK law. The UK is falling behind neighbouring countries in putting measures in place and should step up to be a bycatch prevention leader.”

Chris Tuckett, Director of Programmes at Marine Conservation Society (MCS) said: “The UK Government promised to be world leaders in marine management and deliver a seabird conservation strategy. But, despite becoming an independent coastal state, we are yet to see any meaningful progress at sea. The opportunity to deliver sustainable fisheries that protect nature and ensures a future for a responsible industry is achievable- but without real action, we are allowing the very real risk of bycatch to persist in our sea”.

The RSPB, WDC and MCS are calling for governments to take urgent action to tackle sensitive species bycatch including:

  1. Publishing an action plan which includes ambitious, timebound targets to minimise and where possible eliminate sensitive species bycatch, and the resources to make this happen
  2. Changes to fishing practices that ensure high-risk fleets use best practice mitigation measures and support for industry to trial new measures and gears to prevent bycatch
  3. Better monitoring of fishing activity at sea through Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras and human observers

* Source: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds