Global biodiversity is in crisis. The current rate of decline is unparalleled in human history and the UK has been cited as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. In the marine environment, mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in a variety of ways, including cycling nutrients and playing different roles in the food chain, as well as helping to combat climate change. Marine mammals are also some of the most charismatic creatures on earth and for this reason have become flagship species for marine conservation and a boost for coastal recreation and tourism. These species, however, are facing increasing pressures from a variety of sources which threaten population numbers and welfare.
One of the biggest problems in protecting marine mammals is the lack of data available. They are difficult to monitor and assess because they are highly mobile, primarily underwater species. Defra should launch a new initiative specifically to encourage the development of new technological solutions to marine mammal monitoring, with ring-fenced funding that at least matches the existing £1.5m Marine Natural Capital and Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA) innovation competition, which was completely inadequate at tackling issues in this specific policy area.
Government initiatives to support marine mammals include the Dolphin and Porpoise Conservation Strategy and the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative. These are very welcome but need to move at a faster pace, be more joined up between Defra and the Devolved Administrations, and contain more rigorous assessment mechanisms including SMART targets, if they are to yield results.
Other key findings and recommendations are:
The legal framework to protect of marine mammals is incoherent and not sufficient to effectively preserve these precious species. UK measures contain concerning loopholes and are in stark contrast to best practice exemplified internationally by the 1972 US Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the short term, seals should be added to the list of species in Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act as soon as possible. In the medium term, Defra should take urgent steps to close the loophole that allows the transit of cetacean products through UK ports. In the long term, the Government should bring forward primary legislation on marine mammal protection.
Current levels of bycatch monitoring are insufficient to gain an accurate picture of the numbers of marine mammals killed or injured in this way, despite the requirement for vessels to report marine mammal bycatch. We recommend that the Government introduces mandatory bycatch monitoring, phased in over several years, with smaller vessels given extra time and, where necessary, financial support to meet their obligations. We would like to see an action plan to achieve this, with targets and milestones, by December 2023.
We also urge the Government to raise issues of marine mammal welfare with those countries who still engage in hunting, such as Iceland, Norway, Japan and the Faroe Islands, whenever bilateral and/or multilateral talks are taking place, including trade and fisheries negotiations. We recommend that the UK should not agree any new trade deal that does not include a specific commitment to marine mammal conservation.