Dangers to marine species and measures to protect them

Find out the measures the UK and EC are taking to reduce fishing industry threats to marine life, such as overfishing, finning, and bycatch


Some of the activities pursued by the commercial fishing industry put many marine species at risk. Sharks, for example, are affected by over-fishing and practices such as ‘finning’ - the removal of their fins before disposing the carcass at sea. Sharks, along with other marine species such as seabirds and dolphins, can also get caught accidentally in fishing gear and drown (known as by-catch).

The threat to marine life caused by fishing has become an important issue which the government has tried to prevent by introducing several pieces of legislation. European Commission (EC) regulations provide Europe-wide protection to a number of species, and the UK has worked to ensure that such measures are strong, comprehensive and effective.

This guide highlights the dangers marine species face and outlines the measures taken to reduce those threats.

Sharks, skates and rays

Sharks, skates and rays - cartilaginous fish known as elasmobranchs - are caught in commercial fisheries in European and UK waters. Many species are over-fished and their numbers have fallen to dangerously low levels. Although some species are no longer fished commercially, often because they have a Total Allowable Catch of zero under the Common Fisheries Policy, species such as angel shark and white skate must be returned to the water if caught unintentionally.

Elasmobranchs are particularly at risk of over-fishing because:

  • their migratory nature regularly leads them across international boundaries, making them difficult to manage
  • they mature slowly and take a long time to reach breeding age
  • they have relatively few young

Read our shark, skate and ray conservation plan and the 2013 review of progress.

Protective measures

The UK government is committed to making sure that all fisheries on elasmobranch species are sustainable, and that endangered species have adequate protection. It has done, and will continue to do so by:

  • implementing our shark, skate and ray conservation plan
  • introducing appropriate, scientifically-based conservation and fishery management measures within the EU and internationally
  • improving controls on the catches of sharks wherever they are caught
  • regulating the trade of shark products
  • banning wasteful ‘finning’ wherever it takes place

The Wildlife and Countryside Act

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA) affords protection to rare species of animals and plants, such as the angel shark and white skate, with both species now being listed in the revised Schedule 5. This means that you will be committing an offence if you intentionally or recklessly kill, injure, take, possess, transport or trade in either species up to 12 nautical miles off the English and Welsh coast.

You can read questions and answers about the Shark Action Plan on the Europa website.

Shark finning

The demand for shark fin soup in some parts of the world has led to an increase in the practice of ‘shark finning’. This involves removing and retaining the fins from a shark on board a fishing vessel and disposing of the carcass at sea.

The UK does not support the practice of removing shark fins before landing and does not permit landings of sharks with their fins removed. Recently it has successfully called for mandatory ‘fin on’ landings to be introduced and properly enforced across the EU fleet through a change to European Council Regulation 1185/2003.

This means all EU vessels wherever they fish must now follow the same practices as UK registered which are required to land sharks with their “Fins Naturally Attached”, wherever they fish. This is by far the simplest and most reliable way to ensure an end to shark finning, and is practiced by many other countries around the world.

The UK produces reports under Regulation 1185/2003.


Tope belong to the shark family and are found in European continental-shelf and coastal waters. Their numbers are at risk from fishing pressure because they:

  • take around 12 years to reach maturity and start breeding
  • produce relatively low numbers of young (known as pups)
  • are an inevitable by-catch in commercial fisheries for other species

Tope is a relatively low-value species commercially, although it is traditionally eaten in certain countries. In the UK, tope is a highly-prized sport fish.

Protective measures

The UK introduced the Tope (Prohibition of Fishing) Order 2008 to protect the species by limiting by-catch and preventing the development of commercial tope-fishing operations. The legislation applies within English and Welsh fishery limits and is designed to protect tope numbers by:

  • banning all fishing for tope except by rod and line
  • setting a 45 kilogram per day by-catch limit for tope in commercial fisheries for other species
  • requiring any tope landed by commercial fishing vessels to have their head and fins still attached
  • preventing recreational anglers from landing any tope - whether dead or alive - caught from a boat

The legislation is designed to make recreational anglers and the commercial fishing community jointly responsible for tope conservation.

Dolphins, porpoises and whales

Dolphins, porpoises and whales belong to a group of marine mammals known as cetaceans. The UK Government has long worked to protect and conserve cetaceans both around the UK and internationally.

There are 28 species of cetacean that have been recorded in UK waters, of which 11 appear regularly.

All cetaceans are legally protected throughout Europe under the Habitats Directive, and specifically in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Under UK law it is illegal to:

  • kill or injure a cetacean intentionally
  • ‘recklessly disturb’ a cetacean - for example to cause it distress by chasing it in a boat

The UK has signed up to the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS). This agreement aims to restore and maintain populations of small cetaceans through the co-ordination and implementation of conservation measures. You can find out about small cetacean conservation on the ASCOBANS website.

Fisheries impact on cetacean by-catch

Although cetaceans have legal protection throughout Europe, they are sometimes caught and injured or killed accidentally during commercial fishing activities. When caught in fishing nets cetaceans, like dolphins and porpoises, are unable to surface to breathe, so often suffocate - this is known as ‘incidental by-catch’. Council Regulation (EC) No. 812/2004 governs the by-catch of cetaceans. Work undertaken to meet our obligations under this regulation is focused on:

  • monitoring cetacean by-catch
  • the development of mitigation measures


The UK has a detailed and thorough cetacean monitoring programme to ascertain the extent of the by-catch problem.

While any by-catch is undesirable, recent population estimates suggest that porpoise and dolphin populations are not currently under threat.

Certain UK fisheries, such as static gillnets in the south west of England and the North Sea, are thought to have higher-than-normal by-catch rates. The monitoring programme focuses on these fisheries and areas to improve understanding and reduce by-catch levels.

Mitigation measures

The UK seeks to reduce the number of cetaceans that become accidentally caught (bycaught) in fishing gear. We have collaborated with the fishing industry on this issue. European legislation requires fishing vessels over a certain size to have acoustic deterrent devices - often referred to as a ‘pingers’ fitted - to deter cetaceans from approaching fishing gear and so reducing by-catch levels.

The UK government carried out detailed research to identify an effective pinger that is safe for fishermen to use. There are a number of authorised/compliant pingers available. For more information, please see:

The UK submits an annual report to the European Commission on the steps taken to reduce cetacean bycatch, as required under European Council Regulation EC 812/2004.

Pair trawling for bass

Pair trawling for bass off the south-west coast of England has been shown to have a high level of cetacean by-catch compared to other fisheries. Because of this, pelagic pair trawling for bass by UK vessels is banned within 12 miles of the south-west coast of England (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) area VIIe). Other bass fisheries, such as gillnetting and handlining, and pair trawl fisheries targeting other species, are not affected by the ban.

The UK requested that the ban on pelagic pair trawling for bass be extended to vessels from other EU member states, but this request was turned down by the EC. These vessels are currently permitted to fish between six and 12 miles off the coast of south-west England.


Research suggests that a large number of seabirds are killed each year by getting caught in commercial fishing gear and becoming part of the by-catch. The seabirds most at risk from fishing activities include:

  • shearwaters
  • petrels
  • fulmars
  • gannets
  • gulls
  • sea dusks
  • divers
  • auks and grebes

The Balearic shearwater is a critically endangered species that is particularly threatened by fishing activity in the Mediterranean.

EU Seabird Action Plan

The European Commission published its Seabird Bycatch Plan of Action in November 2012. Its main objective is:

to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the incidental catches of seabirds, with priority action focussing on individuals belonging to at least 49 threatened seabird populations by EU vessels operating in EU and non-EU waters, as well as by non-EU vessels operating in EU waters. For other seabirds where populations are stable but bycatch are at levels that are cause for concern, bycatch should be reduced as a first step towards bycatch elemination.

You can read the Plan of Action and Summary News Release

Seabird by-catch in international waters

The UK works with other countries and organisations to reduce seabird by-catch in international waters. It was involved with the development of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) in the Southern Oceans, and it continues to work with the EC to encourage regional fisheries management organisations to act on reducing seabird by-catch on the high seas.

Further information

Download the shark, skate and ray conservation plan from the Defra website (PDF, 213KB)

Download the text of EC Regulation 1185/2003 on the removal of shark fins on board vessels from the Europa website (PDF, 105KB)

The Tope (Prohibition of Fishing) Order on the website

Download the text of EC Regulation 812/2004 on incidental catches of cetaceans in fisheries from the Europa website (PDF, 148KB)

Seabird Action Plan consultation details on the EC website

Published 12 September 2012
Last updated 13 September 2013 + show all updates
  1. Changed the text on mitigating measures.

  2. Changed to reflect publication of shark conservation plan review and change in shark finning rules.

  3. 2011 Report attached and associated updates to text

  4. Updated by Defra, including new detail on Shark Finning measures, on 16/11/12

  5. First published.