The what, why and how of tackling marine wildlife bycatch

Our Marine Environment Regulation Advisor explains how the Marine Wildlife Bycatch Mitigation Initiative aims to protect sensitive marine species.

This summer the UK Government launched the Marine Wildlife Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (BMI) to outline how the UK will achieve its ambitions to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the bycatch of sensitive marine species. Bycatch presents a significant challenge for the fishing industry, but it is being taken seriously and this initiative is the latest example of positive work underway to tackle the issue.

In this blog I’ll explain what bycatch is, why it’s an issue and what’s being done, including where the Marine Wildlife Bycatch Initiative fits in. I’ll also share some links to further resources and information on bycatch and protected species.

What is bycatch?

Bycatch is the accidental capture or entanglement of animals in fishing gear. It’s one of the most significant human threats to the conservation and welfare of marine species.

Bycatch is of particular concern for sensitive species such as:

  • cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises)
  • seabirds
  • seals
  • elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays)

In the UK, the species most affected are common dolphin, harbour porpoise, grey seal, fulmar, cormorant and guillemot. Bycatch estimates for elasmobranchs are much harder to quantify because many species are involved and some are caught as part of mixed fisheries.

Dolphin jumping over the sea
Common dolphin, Nikki Taylor ©

Why is bycatch an issue?

Bycatch impacts the sustainability of fisheries and is now a part of most certification schemes. Releasing injured or dead animals from fishing gear can be distressing and dangerous for fishers. Bycatch also has economic costs in time needed to remove bycaught animals from fishing gear, repair or replace damaged or lost gear, and also any associated loss of catch.

Through the Fisheries Act 2020 and the Joint Fisheries Statement (JFS), the UK and Devolved Governments have recognised the need to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the bycatch of sensitive marine species as part of a wider effort to ensure fisheries sustainability.

The UK Marine Strategy and the achievement of Good Environmental Status, as well as various international frameworks also emphasise the urgent need to reduce bycatch. For example, all fishing vessel licences now contain a mandatory requirement to report the occurrence any marine mammal bycatch.

The UK’s bycatch monitoring programme has estimated that thousands of these animals are caught each year. This raises concerns from conservation and animal welfare perspectives, but also fishery sustainability and represents a distressing and safety issue for fishers.

How does the Marine Wildlife BMI fit in?

The Marine Wildlife BMI outlines how the UK will achieve its ambitions to reduce bycatch. The BMI brings together existing work and commits to work that will enable the UK to meet its national and international obligations.

Five policy objectives have been identified:

  1. Improve our understanding of bycatch and entanglement of sensitive marine species through monitoring and scientific research.
  2. Identify “hotspot” or high-risk areas, gear types and/or fisheries for bycatch and entanglement in the UK in which to focus monitoring and mitigation.
  3. Develop, adopt and implement effective measures to minimise and, where possible, eliminate bycatch and entanglement of sensitive marine species.
  4. Identify and adopt effective incentives for fisheries to implement bycatch and entanglement mitigation measures.
  5. Work with the international community to share best practice and lessons learned to contribute to the understanding, reduction and elimination of bycatch and entanglement globally.

Addressing bycatch whilst simultaneously ensuring productive commercial fisheries is complex and challenging. There is no “one size fits all” approach, instead there needs to be focused, local solutions for each fishery where the bycatch of marine wildlife has been identified as an issue.

This initiative acknowledges the need for fisheries policy authorities to work closely with stakeholder groups across the actions identified to minimise and, where possible, eliminate bycatch of sensitive marine species. These stakeholders include the fishing industry, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), scientists, experts and innovators.

Find out more

Further information on bycatch and a guide on protected species is available on our website from the link below:

You can read a policy paper on the Marine Wildlife Bycatch Initiative on the UK Government website from the link below:

A report on reducing cetacean bycatch in UK fisheries is available on the Cefas website from the link below:

A report on exploring new ways to expand the wildlife bycatch reduction toolkit is available on the Clean Catch UK website from the link below:

More information about joint action to reduce wildlife bycatch is also available on the Clean Catch UK website from the link below: