Research into ‘pingers’ to stop cetacean bycatch shows they are effective

Accidental entanglement of cetaceans is reduced with acoustic alarms on fishing nets.

Bottlenose dolphin leaping in the air in the Moray Firth, Scotland, UK. © Getty

Conservationists are hoping new research into the effectiveness of ‘pingers’ – acoustic devices that deter cetaceans from hunting around fishing nets – will persuade the UK Government to lift its ban on their use in small boats.

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The move could save the lives of thousands of harbour porpoises and dolphins that drown every year after getting caught in fishing nets.

The new study found that not only were pingers effective in keeping porpoises away from nets, but that they did not stop the animals from returning to feed when the boats had moved away.

According to Ruth Williams, of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, fishermen in the village of Mevagissey want to use the pingers both to save cetaceans’ lives but also because it costs time and money to repair the nets.

“In 2017, we were approached by the fishermen who wanted to stop bycatch,” Williams says. “We gave them some pingers and they soon realised they were highly effective.”

Williams later learned the fishermen needed a licence from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), and she applied for one in 2018.

“The licence was refused on the grounds that the pingers could disturb a protected species by putting noise into the environment,” Williams says.

According to Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), more than 1,000 porpoises alone die in UK gill nets – the type used by the Mevagissey fishery – every year. Pingers could reduce bycatch throughout British waters and will not displace them from important feeding or breeding habitats, it adds.

Under EU rules, pingers are mandatory on vessels more than 12m in length – but they represent only 2% of all boats using static nets such as gill nets.

Dr Robert Enever of Fishtek Marine, which manufactures the pingers, says one small boat can be kitted out for less than £250.

“The Government has just designated five new Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for harbour porpoises, but there’s no management of them,” he says. “One of the things you could do is to require fishers who interact with porpoise in these SACs to use pingers.”

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in a statement that they were trying to understand how pingers could be best deployed but that it was “not a ‘one size fits all’ situation”.

Read the full paper in Frontiers in Marine Science.


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Main image: Bottlenose dolphin leaping in the air in the Moray Firth, Scotland, UK. © Getty