Whales and dolphins face rising risk of disturbance around UK coasts – charity

Whales, dolphins and porpoises around the UK’s coast are increasingly at risk of disturbance from people in boats, jet skis and paddleboards, wildlife experts warn.

Conservationists say laws and reporting processes that are meant to protect marine mammals from being disturbed are failing to safeguard wildlife and need urgent reform.

As the Easter break sees holidaymakers flocking to the coast, charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) says the increasing number of people using the sea for leisure activities is pushing up the risk of harm to marine wildlife.

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It is illegal to disturb whales and dolphins, which can be scared away from important feeding and breeding grounds, or even physically injured or killed by human activity.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises around the UK’s coast are increasingly at risk of disturbance from people in boats, jet skis and paddleboards, wildlife experts warn.

WDC’s Katie Dyke said: “Our key aim is to stop disturbance before it happens by raising awareness of the issues.

“UK seas are a special place for dolphins and whales, being home to more than 20 species, more than anywhere else in northern Europe.

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“They are also a rapidly growing destination for marine recreation and tourism, which is increasing levels of disturbance.”

She said that could happen when people get too close to marine wildlife, disrupt their natural behaviours and cause them stress.

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Martin Sims, former head of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, said: “Marine mammals are sensitive to disturbance, especially when they have young, are resting, feeding or socialising.

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“Disturbance by some members of the public using leisure craft, jet skis, kayaks and paddleboards can frighten them and scare them away from important habitats, and in extreme cases, injure or kill them.

“Giving marine wildlife space is important – watch them from a good distance, don’t crowd them and don’t stay too long.”

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Many boat users and beachgoers do not know the rules or how to report incidents they witness, the WDC says.

A law change is needed to ensure that where a dolphin expert determines disturbance has occurred – such as a vessel splitting up a family group with young calves or a rogue wildlife tourism operator repeatedly driving too close to a pod – it can be prosecuted, WDC urges.

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The charity also says potential crimes are not recorded in a way that means data can be collected and analysed and a lack of specific details that police call handlers are required to take when a report comes in makes it hard to track incidents.

Police forces in the UK have increased attention and effort on tackling disturbance of dolphins and other creatures, but awareness and ability to deal with marine wildlife crime needs to be maintained and improved, the WDC said.

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The charity wants to see all wildlife crime, including incidents involving marine mammals, to be “notifiable” offences recorded by the Home Office, so that data on the number of cases can be properly analysed and the issue addressed and has called for legislation used to prosecute wildlife crime to be reviewed and updated, training for police call handlers and prosecutors on marine wildlife cases/

Privately-owned leisure boats are cited as the biggest threat to whales and dolphins.

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Fast-growing sports such as paddle boarding and canoeing pose a particular risk as they are able to access sites for marine creatures with little noise, and then can disturb them.