Whale and Dolphin Conservation - Jan 2023 Update

New study finds solution to prevent whale entanglements in fishing gear

A ground-breaking study in Scotland investigating whale entanglements in fishing gear has identified new ways to prevent them.

Whales and other marine animals are becoming entangled in fishing equipment and the lobster-pot (creel) ropes which are set up around Scotland’s coasts. Tragically, when whales become entangled, escape is usually impossible, meaning they eventually die. Entanglement is the largest identified cause of death due to human activity for minke and humpback whales in Scottish seas. However, it is only recently that the full extent of the problem has been better understood and investigated.

The study estimates that in Scottish waters, approximately six humpback whales and 30 minke whales become entangled in fishing ropes each year. The good news is that new ways to address the problem have now been identified.

WDC has been working with the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA), which in turn collaborates with the government, academia, NGOs and the fishing industry. During the investigation, commercial creel fishermen from around the Scottish coast were interviewed, with their feedback enabling researchers to better understand the nature and extent of entanglements in Scottish seas.

The addition of data from the SEA and WDC has allowed the number of whales entangled in the Scottish pot (creel) fishery to be estimated. The study also showed that a high proportion of entangled whales had become caught in the groundline, the rope that links creels together on the seabed. Groundline is typically made from rope which floats, so it can form arches in the water between creels in which basking sharks or whales are prone to getting caught by their mouths, flippers or tails.

The collaborative approach of the study means that we understand much more than we did previously about how entanglements occur and the implications for ocean life.  Which has led to strategies being developed and solutions being trialled in order to reduce entanglements in the future.

The study’s findings mean we now know that if the groundline is made of rope which sinks rather than floats, it will lie on the seabed, and will not pose an entanglement risk. This has led the way for a new plan to trial sinking groundlines in the Scottish fishing industry.

WDC has received funding from the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund, for these trials, which will help inform how improvements might be implemented in a way which is practical for fishermen, as well as beneficial for the marine environment.

36 new Important Marine Mammal Areas have been mapped from northern Mexico to the southern tip of Chile

Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMA) are portions of ocean which are important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be preserved for conservation management.

Identifying and creating IMMAs helps protect whales and dolphins and create healthier oceans, to help fight against climate breakdown.

The addition of the latest 36 important areas brings the total number of IMMAs worldwide to 209.

Nearly half of the world’s 132 marine mammal species (whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions and sea otters) live or pass through the 36 recently mapped IMMAs.

The IMMA initiative is a partnership between WDC and other charities and research facilities.  So far, it has enabled over 50% of our world oceans to be considered for IMMA identification and a total of 209 IMMAs to be created.  These will be used as a tool in marine spatial planning and conservation and will be vital for the protection of our precious oceans.

Post - COP15: UK government must keep its ocean promises

On the final day of COP15 in Montreal, promising steps were taken, with nearly 200 countries committing to protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030. 

The UK government played its part in the agreement, making big ocean-related promises on the world stage.  However, it is so far falling short of delivering on them at home and its commitment to the cause of ocean protection seems to be waning.

For example, the government claims that 38% of the seas around the UK are in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  Yet the reality is very different, with most of these sites proving to be little more than lines on a map, with even the most damaging activities, such as bottom trawling, permitted to take place. So far, bans have been implemented for just 4 out of the 40 offshore English MPAs.  This is clearly not good enough.

And it's not just fishing activity that is hindering the recovery of MPAs. Pollution of our seas is playing an increasing role in biodiversity loss.  Plastics, microplastics, raw sewage and chemicals are all building up in our seas over time, creating a toxic soup. In 2018, the UK government set out to publish a Chemicals Strategy to curb pollution, but nearly five years on, no strategy has ever been published.

Chemical pollution is having a devastating impact on marine life in UK waters, especially on vulnerable whale populations. At the same time, we know that whales bring climate and biodiversity benefits, so restoring their populations by eliminating threats should be treated as an urgent priority.  However, the government appears not to be sitting up and taking notice.

So, along with other charities, WDC is pushing for more protection for the seas around the UK and urging the UK government to help reach the targets it set at COP15, by fulfilling its promises for the UK.

Only time will tell if the UK government follows through with their COP15 promises.  But with the climate and nature crisis intensifying, it is vitally important that the preservation of UK seas is finally treated with the seriousness it deserves.

Tragic Orca death at dolphinarium in Russia

Narnia, a wild orca taken from the sea and held at the Moskvarium facility in Moscow has died.

In a statement issued by the dolphinarium, officials say she died unexpectedly, having shown no prior signs of illness.

Narnia was thought to be around 17 years old and spent her first years of life with her family in the Sea of Okhotsk, before she was captured in 2012.  She was then transported over 9,000 kilometres and kept for months with another orca in a warehouse, without natural light or fresh air.

The following year, Narnia was moved to a new dolphinarium in Moscow.  In 2015, she was subsequently transported to the newly built Moskvarium, dolphinarium, the largest facility of its kind on the European continent at that time. Two other orcas, a beluga whale and several bottlenose dolphins are currently kept there, being used in shows to entertain the public.

Between 2012 and 2018, at least 29 orcas were snatched from their family groups in Russian waters and forced into captivity. 2 remain in Moscow, 15 were sold to China and 10 were released in 2019, because they were found to have been caught without permission from the government. 

The bond between an orca mother and her calf in the wild is extremely strong and lasts for a lifetime, so it is extremely harrowing for the mother and calf when they are separated.  Being kept in captivity is cruel, causes stress, and denies whales and dolphins the space, freedom and quality of life they have in the ocean. As a result, most creatures taken from their ocean homes and held in captivity die premature deaths.

In recent months, 3 orcas being held captive in the Loro Parque tourist attraction in Tenerife, Spain have died.

WDC is working towards a phase out of whale and dolphin captivity and is helping to create sanctuaries for individuals currently held in tanks.

24 dolphins sent to Abu Dhabi marine park

The marine park is due to open this year and the dolphins, who were moved from a number of SeaWorld locations in the US, including San Diego, San Antonio, and Orlando, now face further confinement in small tanks and a short-lived, miserable future performing for human entertainment.

SeaWorld visitor numbers have plummeted, following an increase in negative public feeling towards the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity, due to better awareness of the suffering caused.  This is thanks in part to the release of films such as Blackfish, which documents the shocking death of a Sea World trainer, who was killed in 2010 when an orca dragged her under the water at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. The film also exposes other, similar incidents and raises safety questions about the wider captivity industry as a whole.

Facilities often argue that conservation is an excuse for captivity.  But this is not a reasonable or relevant argument for whales and dolphins. They are intelligent creatures and keeping them in featureless tanks for public entertainment is indisputably cruel. They tend to swim endlessly in circles or lie on the floor of the tank for many hours, repeating the same patterns of behaviour over and over, getting increasingly frustrated and depressed.

Ocean sanctuaries are one alternative for whales and dolphins currently held captive in tanks.  In addition to helping to establish the world’s first beluga whale sanctuary in Iceland, WDC is working in partnership with other sanctuary projects. It is hoped these initiatives will help to encourage the rehabilitation of more captive whales and dolphins into natural environments around the world.

We hope this piece encourages you to step up to help our ocean-based buddies!  All you need to do to donate is buy a little something from our wide range of Apple Watch Straps.  WDC will receive 25% of your payment… And you’ll receive a fabulous, top-quality watch strap!

So far, we’ve raised a whopping £4,207.70 for WDC, all of which has enabled this fantastic charity to fund their vital projects and help our beloved sea creatures. We’re committed to helping WDC and hope to be able to send even more money their way in the future.  So, get spending people!