Disentangling a whale of a problem

Disentangling a whale of a problem

Entanglement of whales, dolphins and porpoises in fishing gear is recognised as a leading cause of death for these species globally, posing serious welfare and conservation concerns.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear in the North East coast of Scotland. Photo credit: Cal Major
A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear in the North East coast of Scotland. Photo credit: Cal Major Download 'Disentangling a whale of a problem.jpg'
"Successful prevention and mitigation of entanglement relies on continuous engagement and support from fishing communities." - Ellie MacLennan, Fellow

Defined as ‘wraps of line, netting or other materials around body areas that may include cases in which animals are towing gear or anchored by gear’, these events can also have devastating impacts on the fishers who encounter them, including huge financial losses, serious injury or even death.

In Scotland, although entanglement has been identified as the largest cause of anthropogenic mortality in humpback and minke whales, basking sharks and turtles, large data gaps limit our understanding of the true scale and extent of this problem, and there is currently a lack of support for fishers on how to report, respond to and mitigate these incidents safely.

My Activate Fund project focusses on developing a range of online and in-person resources, knowledge exchange platforms, workshops and focus groups, all designed to support and inform small-scale UK fishers affected by large marine animal entanglement, inspire innovation within the industry and influence future policy surrounding this issue. To achieve this, the aims are:

  1. To engage with and encourage fishers to report and discuss entanglements and provide safe, accessible channels to facilitate this. Work on this issue to date has highlighted that although fishers are actively and positively engaged in addressing entanglement, they are not reporting these incidents. Initial discussions with fishers suggest that this is due to a lack of understanding of the relevant legislation surrounding marine animal entanglement, fear of potential negative repercussions against them or their fishery, or because they do not know how and where to report entanglements or why this information is valuable. This is limiting not only our understanding of the problem, but also our ability to ensure that any potential future mitigation measures are appropriate and proportional.
  2. To empower fishers to become part of the solution. Fishers represent an invaluable source of information and expertise on entanglement and other related issues specific to their fishery and geographical location. However, their opinions and expertise have seldom been sought by fisheries managers and policy makers, where top-down policies have prevailed. Inadequate consideration of individual fishers’ decision-making processes and behaviours has created feelings of animosity and a lack of trust, and in some cases has resulted in serious negative social and economic consequences for fishers and their communities. Therefore, there is a need to encourage a more collaborative approach to addressing entanglement risk by building a network of fishers, researchers and policy makers around the UK, based on trust and transparency, who are willing to work together to monitor and mitigate entanglement risk.
  3. To draft a set of coherent and robust policy recommendations. Successful prevention and mitigation of entanglement relies on continuous engagement and support from fishing communities. This will help to ensure that future policy mechanisms and targets for tackling entanglements are clear, achievable and based on best-available evidence. These recommendations must be consulted on and representative of all stakeholders, while also protecting and supporting the future of our sustainable fisheries, which provide a key source of employment and social cohesion in many fragile rural areas.
Ellie (left) with fishermen in the Isle of Skye
Ellie (left) with fishermen in the Isle of Skye Download 'Disentangling a whale of a problem.jpg'

To date, I have led on the development of a best practice guide for fishers on how to report and safely disentangle marine wildlife caught in fishing gear. This guide also offers practical advice on how to reduce future entanglement risk, in collaboration with members of the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) and contacts made during my Fellowship. This and a summary report of work in this area, which I have coordinated, is due to be published shortly by SEA, detailing key findings on which species are vulnerable to entanglement in UK waters, the frequency of entanglements, potential mitigation measures and next steps proposed by fishers. Through informal discussions with fishers, I am gaining a better understanding of fishers’ thoughts and perceptions surrounding entanglement and other relevant topics of interest, and ideas of how best to utilise their expertise and understanding of the environment in which they work to address this issue. These conversations will be formalised via a series of recorded interviews which will guide the next steps in this project, including workshops and training events.

This is already highlighting fishers’ willingness to engage in addressing this issue. For example one fisher stated that, “Having experienced an entanglement myself, I never ever want to see that again. I can honestly say it was the worst day of my fishing career. If I need to compromise or make changes to how I fish, to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, then I’d happily do it.”


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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