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Marine dolphins

Pantropical spotted dolphin

About marine dolphins

Marine dolphins are generally social creatures that live in groups – called pods – which can contain hundreds of individuals. These charismatic and intelligent mammals are found in most oceans around the world – as well as in some of the world’s largest rivers. Threats to dolphins include their accidental capture in fishing gear – known as bycatch, pollution of seas and human disturbance, noise pollution and shipping.

By producing clicking sounds and interpreting the returning echoes, they can tell the size, shape, distance, speed and direction of objects. This is known as echo-location. They use this ability to find their food, such as fish and squid. They sometimes hunt working in groups with other dolphins.

Find out how you can help protect dolphins.


Why dolphins matter

 Dolphins play an important role in their ecosystem – helping maintain a healthy balance. They eat other animals – mainly fish and squid – and are themselves a source of food for some sharks and other creatures.

Without dolphins, their prey would increase in number, and their predators wouldn’t have as much food to eat. This would disrupt the natural balance in the food chain, and could have a cascading effect – negatively impacting other wildlife, and damaging the health of habitats and ecosystems. Dolphins are a key indicator of the health of their environment because they are high up in the food chain. If there wasn’t a healthy habitat with lots of fish for them to eat then the dolphins wouldn’t be able to survive there.

By protecting dolphins we’re helping preserve healthy marine habitats – which a large number of the world’s people heavily rely on for their livelihoods and food.

Threats to marine dolphins

Spanish fishing boat for PISCES


The main threat to dolphins at sea is unsustainable fishing practices. Dolphins can get accidentally caught or entangled in fishing gear and drown – this is known as bycatch. This causes the deaths of over 300,000 dolphins, porpoises and whales every year.

Overfishing of our seas is reducing dolphin prey, so they’re left with less to eat. Ships and other vessels also sometimes hit dolphins, inflicting serious and even fatal injuries.

Petrol tanker waiting for its cargo, Fujeirah port, United Arab Emirates, Indian Ocean

Noise distrubance

In the ocean, noise travels further and louder under the water than it does in the air. Noise – from ship engines and seismic surveys – can stress and physically damage dolphins, and disrupt their natural behaviour and navigation. This sometimes leads to their becoming stranded onshore and dying.

Burning off gas at an oil field Prudhoe Bay, Alaska


Our seas are being used more and more for industrial activity and shipping is also increasing. This makes the habitat more vulnerable to pollution and human disturbance. Such pollutants not only make dolphins sick, reducing their ability to fight infections and diseases, but also reduces the health of the habitat, and the ecosystems they’re part of.

How WWF is helping protect marine dolphins

Vishal signs up a new campaigner.

Improving marine legislation and protection

We campaign for marine legislation that protects our seas and ensures that developments and activities at sea have as minimal an impact on marine ecosystems as possible.

We also work with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust in Scotland to learn more about dolphins, whales and porpoises around the UK – so we understand how to best protect them.

By-catch of Leatherback turtle. French Tuna purse-seine fishery in the Atlantic ocean.

Reducing bycatch

We’re working with fisheries managers and governments worldwide to create, implement and enforce more sustainable fishing practices that reduce bycatch. This includes introducing more selective fishing methods, improving regulations and altering fishing gear.

For example, by attaching acoustic alarms (‘pingers’) to fishing gear, dolphins are alerted and can avoid it.

Using stiffer nets can make entanglement less likely, as can setting the fishing nets deeper (below 100m), where animals like dolphins are less likely to swim – but where target fish can still be caught effectively.

MSC-certified sustainable fish

Tackling unsustainable fishing

Together with Unilever, we established the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 1997. MSC works with fisheries, retailers and others to identify and certify responsible and sustainable fishing practices around the world.

For fisheries to receive MSC certification, they have to fulfil a set of standards – which include efforts to prevent non-target animals such as dolphins getting caught. Products that meet these standards are able to use the MSC logo – so consumers can identify and purchase sustainable seafood. Over 100 fisheries around the world are now certified.

We inform consumers (like you) in the hope that you’ll choose seafood from responsible sources, which don’t put vulnerable creatures like dolphins at risk. We hope that support for more sustainable fisheries will contribute to the end of non-sustainable fishing practices – so look out for the MSC logo on packs when you go shopping!

How you can help protect dolphins