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‘Incoherent’ UK law failing whales & dolphins

Minke whale breaching - incoherent laws in UK (Mike Tetley / Lunenburg Whale Watching Tours)
Minke whale breaching (Mike Tetley / Lunenburg Whale Watching Tours)

The UK legal framework intended to protect marine mammals is “incoherent and not sufficient to effectively preserve these precious species”, according to a House of Commons select committee report published today (28 June). The weakness of UK laws is shown up by the sort of measures implemented in parts of the world such the USA, it says.

Also read: Unwelcome whale news from Iceland + Marineland

The report “shines a light on the gaps in the UK’s efforts to protect whales and dolphins”, says Whale & Dolphin Conservation (WDC), the charity based in the UK, Germany, the USA and Australia. It also runs the Scottish Dolphin Centre in Moray Firth.

The Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee considered evidence from WDC chief executive Chris Butler-Stroud while producing the report.

“This report will make for uncomfortable reading for the UK government,” says Butler-Stroud. “It throws into stark contrast this country’s proud track record of standing up for whales and dolphins around the world with its failings to adequately protect them in our own seas.”

It was not too late to correct the situation, he said, expressing support for the committee’s call for “bespoke primary legislation” to address the issues. 

“A UK Marine Mammal Protection Act would close the loopholes exposed by the EFRA committee’s report, remove the inconsistencies in our legislation, stop UK ports being used to sustain the hunting of whales and dolphins and make this country a beacon for whale and dolphin protection,” said Butler-Stroud.

Minke leap ‘auspicious sign’

As the report was about to be released, the BBC reported the rare sight of a minke whale breaching in the north-east of England – off the coastal constituency of EFRA committee chair Sir Robert Goodwill. “This is an auspicious sign for the success of our report,” commented the Conservative MP.

“We’ve made lots of recommendations for helping protect marine mammals – in the UK and abroad. But we could never in our wildest dreams have hoped to have them highlighted by a minke whale off the coast of my own backyard in Scarborough. 

“I like to think the whale is asking everyone to read the report – and asking the government to take its recommendations seriously.” 

The EFRA committee report highlights the fact that whales and dolphins in UK waters face a “mosaic” of threats because measures to protect them compare so poorly to best practice internationally, as exemplified by the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

Marine mammals play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem and helping to combat climate change, says WDC, “yet we don’t know whether UK whale and dolphin populations are declining, stable or growing”. 

“Much of the story of marine mammals remains hidden deep in the oceans,” says the EFRA committee, calling for new solutions to monitor populations including increased use of satellites, underwater microphones and AI.

Bycatch monitoring

The biggest single threat to marine mammals is accidental bycatch, according to the report, but current levels of fishery monitoring are considered insufficient to assess the numbers killed or injured in this way in the UK. 

The committee wants the government to publish an action plan by December 2023 to introduce mandatory bycatch monitoring, and to work with devolved governments on a plan to bring down bycatch numbers significantly. 

This is likely to require the use of cameras or physical observers posted on ships and, because of the cost and difficulty of the task, it would have to be phased in over several years.

The report also calls on the government to speed up action on implementing and enforcing Highly Protected Marine Areas, designed to allow the recovery of marine life.

It also wants to stop giving those countries still engaged in cetacean hunting – Iceland, Norway, Japan and the Faroe Islands – an easy ride during any negotiations on trade or fisheries. 

The UK should not agree any new trade deals unless they include specific commitments to marine mammal conservation, and needs to do more to integrate environmental considerations, including animal welfare, in free-trade agreements. 

The EFRA committee report is entitled Protecting Marine Mammals In The UK And Abroad. 

Also on Divernet: Beginning of the end for whaling, Humpback whales turn up in South-west, Minke whale rescue west of London, Dolphins raise voices against human din, Dolphin dementia: is this why they strand?

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