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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
Many boat users and beachgoers do not know the rules or how to report incidents they witness, the WDC says.
And despite guidelines to help people understand how to behave around sea mammals, when those are broken, it is difficult for action to be taken.
That is because the bar for evidence is set too high to identify disturbance to enable police to push for prosecution, as a very clear behaviour change from the animal is needed – and most whale and dolphin activity is underwater.
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.
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.
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.
The charity is also calling for legislation used to prosecute wildlife crime to be reviewed and updated, training for police call handlers and prosecutors on marine wildlife cases, and an increase in the number of qualified police investigators undertaking investigations.
A report by Cornwall Marine and Coastal Code Group (CMCCG) showed incidents in the region – where they are better recorded due to a dedicated volunteer effort and a hotline number – had tripled between 2014-2021, rising to 371.
Privately-owned leisure boats are cited as the biggest threat to whales and dolphins, while walkers, coastal users and paddle sports were the biggest source of disturbance for seals, seabirds and cetaceans as a whole.
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.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “Whales and dolphins are already legally protected from intentional or reckless disturbance.
“We are also developing a Marine and Coastal Wildlife Code to provide guidance to the public to minimise the risk of harm to our precious marine wildlife from disturbance.”
The Marine Management Organisation is working with the police, RSPCA and other organisations to tackle increases in disturbance to marine wildlife by providing guidance to prevent cases occurring and to prosecute with the support of local police forces where necessary, the spokesperson said.
– All suspected cases of disturbance should be reported to the police on 101, telling the operator it is a wildlife crime, and giving as much information as possible, including date, time, location, duration of incident, any identifying features of the vessel and people, the species involved and their behaviour.