The unintended cost of fish: how whales and dolphins are being killed by industrial fishing

Monday, 07 Feb, 2022

An estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed by industrial fishing every year. They aren't the intended targets but become casualties - known as "bycatch" - due to modern, non-selective fishing practices. 

What is bycatch? 

Bycatch is the indiscriminate capture and often killing of marine animals by commercial fishing vessels. These vessels target only specific species, yet the result is the demise of countless others. 

While it's hard to estimate the full impacts of bycatch, we know the scale is immense. Wherever there is commercial fishing, there is bycatch. 

It is a hidden but devastating issue that kills endangered animals, leads to overfishing and damages the entire ocean ecosystem. 

“Bycatch is a major contributor to overfishing globally, and has devastating impacts on the world’s oceans.”

- Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd Global Director of Campaigns.
Bycatch discovered in illegal nets retrieved during Operation Driftnet in the Indian Ocean.

Why does it occur?

Advancements in modern fishing gear have increased the take of desired fish species – with nets and longlines covering vast swathes of the ocean at any one time. These fishing methods are highly unselective, and a heartbreaking amount of other marine life such as whales, dolphins, turtles, rays and seabirds are hauled up and then discarded overboard, often dead or dying.

Colossal nets are dragged across the seabed, catching almost everything in their path, destroying the marine ecosystem and trapping marine life. Fishing lines carrying thousands of deadly hooks are set across areas of ocean spanning many kilometres, creating walls of death for precious ocean life. 

The problem becomes even more acute in Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) Fishing cases, where fishing regulations on net mesh sizes, quotas, permitted fishing areas, and measures to mitigate bycatch may be completely ignored. 

Dead dolphins in a fishing net in the Bay of Biscay.

Hook, line and flipper: the impact on whales and dolphins 

It is estimated 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed by entanglement in fishing gear each year - but due to a lack of enforcement, only a fraction are ever recorded. There is no clear consensus across the globe about what counts as an entanglement, and what gets included - or, more importantly, excluded -  in official reports. These numbers often mask the scale of the problem. So, while this number is already devastating, it could just be the tip of the iceberg.


One of two humpback whales caught in the net of a European Tuna fishing vessel in Gabonese waters in 2021.

What we're doing

All around the world, our ships are on the frontline, taking action to protect whales and dolphins from industrial and illegal fishing. From working with governments in West Africa to combat illegal fishing; to bringing global attention to the annual killing of over 6,000 dolphins by industrial fishing vessels in France’s Bay of Biscay. 


Click the links below to learn more about our campaigns fighting back against the killing of marine life as bycatch:


Illegal Fishing Campaigns


Operation Dolphin Bycatch


Operation Siso


Operation Milagro


Operation Pahu

What you can do

- Saving the ocean begins on your plate. Try a plant-based diet and refuse to partake in an industry that is indiscriminately killing precious marine life. There are many delicious protein alternatives that don’t destroy the ocean. Find out more here. 

Volunteer with Sea Shepherd on-shore or apply to crew on one of our ships. It is by working together that we can make the biggest impact. 

- Join the movement to end illegal fishing and donate to our frontline campaigns. 

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