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New blow in bid to save the dolphins

Western Morning News

6th April 2004

A deal to tackle the slaughter of dolphins off the Westcountry coast will move even further away following European enlargement, the Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw has warned.

In an assessment that will dismay conservationists, Mr Bradshaw told MPs that the accession of ten new countries to the EU next month was likely to make action even more difficult to agree.

Conservationists are pressing for a ban on so-called "pair trawling" for bass, in which two powerful trawlers tow a giant net between them.

Scientific evidence already suggests that the winter bass fishery contributes to the deaths of hundreds of dolphins washed up on the beaches of the Westcountry and northern France each winter. But European fisheries ministers, meeting to discuss the issue last month, agreed only to place scientific observers on board trawlers to gather more evidence - delaying any action to tackle the problem for at least two years.

Mr Bradshaw acknowledged that the recent deal "did not go far enough". He revealed that he had even considered blocking the deal. But, in a comment that suggests he believes the new, mostly Eastern European countries will be less conservation minded, he said he had eventually backed the deal "because after the accession countries come in, it will be even more difficult to get a majority for the sort of measures that we would like".

Mr Bradshaw rejected Tory claims that the Government had "done nothing" since the former Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley declared there was sufficient evidence to "take action" almost four years ago.

But he came under pressure from MPs on all sides to do more to protect dolphins.

Candy Atherton, Labour MP for Falmouth and Camborne, described the EU deal as "disappointing to say the least". She said: "That wait-and-see approach will see thousands more porpoises and dolphins and possibly whole populations dying needlessly".

Ms Atherton urged the Government to use its powers under the EU habitats directive to ask the European Commission to close the winter bass fishery until a solution was agreed. She said that these powers "appeared to have been ignored" by the Government.

Fellow Labour MP Alan Simpson also backed an immediate ban, saying: "Given the evidence of the scale of the by-catch casualties and carnage, is the question not about the enforcement of emergency measures?"

Adrian Sanders, the Lib-Dem MP for Torbay, who introduced a Bill calling for a ban last week, said that action was needed "without delay".

His Lib-Dem colleague Matthew Taylor questioned whether the Government-backed trials of "dolphin friendly" nets would prove effective. Mr Taylor, MP for Truro and St Austell, said that recent photographs of dolphins off Cornwall showed "clear signs of severe damage" from fishing nets - suggesting that even dolphins that escaped death may suffer serious injuries.

Mr Bradshaw said last year's trials had been "highly successful". But he said that a ban would not be ruled out if evidence from further trials this year was less impressive. The results of the latest trials are expected in the next few weeks.

Shadow Countryside Minister James Gray said he backed a ban on pair trawling for bass. But he said that attempting to negotiate a deal through the EU "has not worked and we have been forced to compromise and downgrade".

Mr Bradshaw said it would be even harder to get restrictions on the French-dominated winter bass fleet if the UK quit the Common Fisheries Policy as the Tories have suggested.