Small cetaceans are found in nearly all the world's seas and in some inland waters. Many species occur in the North East Atlantic and adjacent seas. These dolphins and porpoises, in common with others worldwide, can be highly mobile following their prey over long distances. They encounter a variety of man-made threats, including accidental entanglement in fishing gear (bycatch), marine pollution, acoustic disturbance, and competition with fisheries. Since cetaceans regularly cross national boundaries, their effective protection requires international co-operation.
The Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS) came into force in 1994. The aim of the Agreement is to promote close co-operation amongst Parties with a view to achieving and maintaining a favourable conservation status for small cetaceans. A Conservation and Management Plan forming an Annex of the Agreement obliges Parties to engage in habitat conservation and management, surveys and research, pollution mitigation and public information. To achieve its aim, ASCOBANS co-operates with Range States that have not (yet) acceded to the Agreement, relevant intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental organisations.
The UK ratified ASCOBANS in 1993 and hosted the ASCOBANS Secretariat until 1998. ASCOBANS is applied in all UK waters in accordance with existing statutory protection for cetacean species. Research and management efforts are focused towards the problem of cetaceans by-caught in fishing nets and to minimising risks to cetaceans as a result of seismic exploration activity, cetacean-watching and leisure activities.
JNCC contributes to ASCOBANS through providing advice and baseline data to Government and through establishing initiatives under the Agreement to conserve cetaceans. JNCC provides scientific support to the UK government at the annual Advisory Committee meetings. Guidelines have been established by JNCC for preventing injury during seismic surveys, pile-driving and explosive use, which were drawn up partly in response to ASCOBANS.