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Bycatch is the term given to the accidental capture of marine life in fishing gear. It is a global issue, affecting many different species including seals, turtles and sea birds as well as non-target fish species. It’s estimated that at least 300,000 cetaceans are caught in this way every year. This equates to more than 800 whales, dolphins or porpoises each day, and explains why bycatch is now seen as by far the single most serious, direct threat to cetaceans.

Bycatch of cetaceans occurs in  all kinds of fishing operations: from large industrial to localised artisanal fisheries. The scale of the problem means effective mitigation is only possible if many different organisations, disciplines and stakeholder groups work together with the fishing community, and consideration is given to the social, economic and environmental aspects of the problem. 

The Bycatch Mitigation Initiative

As the leading global body addressing cetacean science, conservation and management, the IWC has the capacity to play a significant role in global efforts to address bycatch and in 2016, endorsed a new Bycatch Mitigation Initiative (BMI).  In collaboration with other organisations, national governments and fishing communities, this aims to develop, assess and promote effective bycatch prevention and mitigation measures world-wide.

The BMI is made up of three inter-related components: a Standing Working Group to manage the initiative, a multi-disciplinary Expert Panel to provide specialist advice, and a Bycatch Co-ordinator who brings technical expertise in the field of bycatch and will lead the work programme.

Four inter-related areas of work have been identified:

  • improved assessment of bycatch to determine priorities and to measure success
  • innovation and testing of mitigation and management methods (no single solution exists to prevent cetacean bycatch)
  • transfer of expertise, technology and management measures between countries and fishing communities
  • engagement with other relevant international organisations focused on fisheries management and bycatch

The concepts of collaboration and co-ordination underpin the BMI.  Bycatch is an issue that needs to be tackled on several different scales, from fishing communities to national governments and intergovernmental fishery bodies.  The Expert Panel includes experts in ecology, fisheries technology, fisheries management, economics and social science. The Panel will work with the Scientific Committee of the IWC as well as with other international, regional and specialist organisations.

The BMI will be working closely with the Global Whale Entanglement Response Network (GWERN), a pioneering initiative which actively addresses welfare, conservation and human safety impacts of large whale entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris.

Large whale entanglement, typically considered a type of bycatch, occurs when fishing gear (eg. ropes, buoys, nets, fish aggregating devices) and marine debris become wrapped around the animal, weighing it down or hampering its movement - often leading to the animal’s death, or serious welfare issues. Small cetaceans can also become entangled in fishing gear such as in gillnets or purse seines, which often leads to the animal drowning.

The structure of the BMI is adapted from the successful GWERN model, with a Co-ordinator and Expert Panel.  This model is also the basis for a new IWC Strandings Initiative.

The BMI began by undertaking an audit of the bycatch work already underway in a variety of organisations around the world, and a strategic assessment of where the IWC’s knowledge and resources could be most effectively targeted.  This forms the basis for A 10-year Strategic Plan and detailed 2-year (2018-20) workplan was endorsed by the Commission at its meeting in September 2018 and implementation is underway.

  • To read the 10 year strategic plan click here.
  • To read the 2 year work plan click here.
  • Click here for a printable, one page summary of the BMI.