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(Dead) dolphin watching in English Channel

Paul Brown on the Esperanza in the English Channel

The Guardian

19th February 2004

Sitting in an open boat in the English Channel during choppy February weather waiting for hours for a pair of trawlers to haul in their nets is a tough way of gathering evidence.
Chocolate bars, rock solid from the cold, are passed round to keep the spirits up. As gannets swing by in the wind, time is passed by watching for dolphins.

At last Sarah Duthie, a Greenpeace campaigner, notices the trawlers change direction. They are coming together to haul in their giant net.

The net, its opening the size of two football pitches, has been pulled between the trawlers for eight hours. They are off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall, hoping for a lucrative catch of sea bass. Greenpeace is interested in what else they may catch, particularly sea mammals - dolphins, porpoises and whales.

Gathering evidence is essential if EU ministers are to be persuaded to outlaw fishing methods that simultaneously kill protected species. Without the cooperation of governments or fishermen, this is the only way to do it.

The pair of trawlers Greenpeace is watching are the Maranatha from Lerwick and the Golden Gain from Fraserburgh. Once Esperanza, the Greenpeace vessel, has closed to within two miles of the pair, a crew is launched on a water-jet boat to film the catch when the fisherman finally decide to wind it in.

From previous experience Ms Duthie expects this to be at 4pm, but it is another very cold hour later before the trawlers draw the ends of the net together to prepare for the Golden Gain to take both sets of cables and wind in the catch.

It takes about 20 minutes of steady winching. The progress of the bottom end of the net, the cod end as it is known, is marked by around 50 gannets and other assorted sea birds diving into the foaming water picking off the small fish that are squeezed out through the mesh.

There is a tense silence in the Greenpeace boat. The second trawler, the Maranatha, which has been watching from 100 metres away, puts on steam and comes in close, towering over the inflatable craft and sandwiching it next to its sister ship. The Greenpeace crew hold steady and stick close to the net.

At last the gannets are diving round us picking the small dead fish out of the water and the cod end comes up. It is practically empty - after eight hours fishing there are hardly enough sizeable fish to fill one box, let alone pay the wages of the fishermen. And there are no dead dolphins.

Back in the ship, hot drinks and supper later, it is time to assess the campaign. A month into this gruelling winter project much has been achieved.

The dolphin watchers who spend every hour of daylight outside on the observation platforms have had daily sightings of large family groups of sea mammals, known as pods.

No one has attempted a winter count of the animals in the Channel before, and the results are surprising. On one exceptional day Ellie Dickson, a scientist from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, counted 1,000 dolphins, what she called a super-pod. Other days there have been 40 to 100 animals.

Using computer modelling all these painstaking observations can be turned into estimates of populations of dolphins in the Channel and western approaches.

At the same time the watchers are seeing dead dolphins in the water.

Unlike the live animals that can be seen hundreds of metres away as they leap out the water, the dead ones can only be seen from about 50 metres. Watchers immediately throw a buoy into the water and track back to pick the bodies up.

They are inspected to check for evidence of how they died, and some are still warm. The ones in best condition are frozen to be returned to the Natural History Museum for autopsy, the rest are tagged and thrown back in the sea.

Sea bass fishing is thought to be the main cause of the deaths. Unlike fish like mackerel that live in shoals, sea bass are spread out, with the dolphins feeding on them. The theory is that dolphins will be attracted by unusually large groups of sea bass trapped in the giant nets.

All of the 10 sea bass hauls campaigners have witnessed and photographed so far have been failures - at least for the fishermen. Between them they have not caught enough bass to stock a single fish stall, and not one dolphin has died in these nets. Some unseen catches nearby tell a different story, however, judging by the number of bodies spotted - an average of one a day.

The Esperanza is to spend another three weeks gathering evidence before presenting it to ministers. Blake Lee-Harwood, the campaigns director of Greenpeace, said that under the EU habitats directive governments had a legal obligation to protect vulnerable species like dolphins.

"Ministers have tried everything they can to avoid this obligation citing lack of evidence, but now the European parliament and the commission are pressing them at least to put observers on boats to check the size of the problem," he said. "We are collecting the evidence to make it harder for them to prevaricate further."

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