Photo credit: Niki Clear
Written by Erica Reid
The haunting of the harbour porpoise
Bycatch of ghosts, bycatch by fishers.
A word that hides brutality
Death to our ocean introverts.
Barely disturbing the sea surface
They rise up, chuffing as they breathe
‘Puffing pigs’ their pet name.
An unwanted catch of fishers
Attending their nets, they rescue
Releasing [ ] from drowning.
Freedom to feed
Searching for safe passage.
Ghost nets, unseen, unheard.
Floating spectres of abandonment,
Indestructible, a perpetual threat.
On their ruthless journey
Across undulating oceans.
Capturing, killing in their wake.
Save our shy, lonely friends
From becoming bycatch.
Bycatch of ghosts.
More about the harbour porpoise…
The disappearance of the Harbour Porpoise will go unnoticed. Only seen in the calmest of waters, showing their triangular dorsal fin as they elegantly surface to breath, they leave barely a ripple on the water as they disappear below to feed.
Is the Harbour Porpoise a surrogate for how we look after our marine life? Over a thousand die each year along our shoreline. Too many die with plastic in their stomachs, too many die by drowning, entrapped in nets or discarded fishing gear. Too few die of old age. Even porpoises are entitled to live full lives.
Life rarely stands still. Innovations are continually disrupting the status quo and in the 1950s fishing was subject to such a technological leap. Until then nets were made of hemp and cotton and subject to wear and tear, requiring continual attention to keep them intact. Then ‘nylon fever’ hit the fishing industry and within a decade 95% of nets were made of this new material. A step change for fishers, but unknown at the time a significant danger for marine life.
There is now over half a century of nylon waste floating across our oceans. Abandoned or lost nets of fishers are called ghost nets and account for 10% of ocean waste. These will take many centuries to decompose. For ocean mammals, like the harbour porpoise, when they are caught in the nets they drown as the weight of the net holds them underwater, leaving them unable to surface to breath.
Innovation is also helping to prevent unintended drowning of harbour porpoises. In their own territory they can remember their paths to their fishing grounds and make their journey without echolocation. This can lead to accidental entrapment – bycatch – the collateral damage of fishing, as they are blind to the presence of boats. Larger boats are fitted with Pingers that emit noises that the porpoise can hear to warn of danger, but small boats of under ten metres account for 80% of fishing and very few use Pingers.
We can protect the harbour porpoise. We can support the brave divers who go and search for ghost nets along our seas. We can pick up plastic waste as we walk along our shorelines. We can campaign for Pingers on all fishing boats. We can support The Wildlife Trusts as they lobby for Living Seas.
Seas that are a safe haven for our harbour porpoise.