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Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

Whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) are European Protected Species (EPS). It is against the law deliberately to capture, kill, injure or disturb a cetacean

Whales, dolphins and porpoises are the largest and most charismatic Welsh mammals. They are air-breathing animals, which are supremely adapted to the marine environment. They give birth, suckle their young, live in social groups, are intelligent and are masters of echolocation.

This page cannot cover all aspects of the law, but it is an introduction to show how you can help to protect cetaceans.

Species Legislation

Cetaceans are protected under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, known as the ‘Habitats Regulations’.

Under the Habitats Regulations, it is an offence if you:

  • deliberately capture, injure or kill any wild animal of an EPS,
  • deliberately disturb wild animals of any such species,
  • damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place of such an animal

Disturbance is defined as that which is likely:

  1. to impair their ability –
    • to survive, to breed or reproduce, or to rear or nurture their young, or
    • in the case of migratory species, to migrate; or
  2. to affect significantly the local distribution or abundance of the species to which they belong

Defra and the Welsh Government will soon be publishing a joint guidance document on the disturbance, damage and destruction of breeding sites and resting places.

There are other offences relating to possession, transport and sale.It is, however, legal for you to tend a stranded cetacean with the intention of returning it to the sea, or to kill a cetacean that cannot recover, as long as the injury was not a result of your unlawful act (Habitat Regulations 44(2); W&CA 10(3)(a)(b)).

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981(as amended) it is illegal to:

  • intentionally or recklessly disturb any dolphin or whale 9(4A)
  • sell, offer or expose for sale any cetacean, 9(5)

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) issues licences under Regulation 55 of the Habitats Regulations to allow you to work within the law. You might need a licence to undertake certain marine developments, for example.

Boat users, both professional and recreational, can avoid breaking the law (and avoid the need for a licence) by following the Sea Wise Code and local marine codes. Refer to ‘Marine European Protected Species Licensing’ and the ‘Sea Wise Code’ for more information.

Related document downloads

Sea Wise Code PDF [73.8 KB]

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