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EU loophole ‘scandal’ risks dolphins’ lives
By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

Sunday Herald

25th April 2004

The needless deaths every year of thousands of porpoises and dolphins that get tangled in fishermen’s nets will continue because Europe’s ministers have left huge loopholes in a new law.
A European regulation meant to protect the cetaceans will instead “perpetuate the needless slaughter”, according to the international conservation group, WWF. “Frankly, it’s scandalous,” said the organisation’s marine policy officer, Helen McLachlan.

“European member states had the perfect opportunity to make a difference and protect the lives of the thousands of porpoises and dolphins that are killed in European waters each year – but they blew it. Instead, they passed a regulation which will make little practical difference.”

McLachlan is planning to confront eight northern European governments at a special meeting on cetacean protection in Poland on Tuesday. She will accuse them of producing a “weak” and “insipid” piece of legislation that will not prevent dolphins and porpoises being accidentally caught up in nets.

The new regulation exempts all boats under 12 metres long from having to use acoustic “pingers” to warn off small cetaceans from seabed nets designed to trap fish by their gills. According to WWF, there are nearly 6000 boats under that length in the UK, which are likely to accidentally catch porpoises.

The new regulation also delays forcing boats longer than 12 metres to introduce pingers from 2005 to 2007. And it contains no requirement to have independent observers on boats less than 15 metres long to monitor the effectiveness of the pingers.

McLachlan warned that Scotland’s much-loved population of 130 bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth could suffer as a result and pointed out that very little was known about the threat that fishing poses to these animals.

“By placing independent observers on-board fishing vessels we could establish what this is, and if there is a problem, seek a solution. But without this basic first step, we are at a loss as to how to protect this vulnerable population.”

She is also worried that fishing could wipe out the last 100 porpoises in the Baltic Sea. This is another issue she is planning to raise at Tuesday’s meeting of the eight nations party to the Agreement on Small Cetaceans of the Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS).

“How countries like the UK, Sweden and Denmark can make commitments in one international arena, such as ASCOBANS to protect dolphins and porpoises, and yet allow so little to happen in another beggars belief. We stand to see the extinction of the harbour porpoise in the Baltic if no action is taken immediately.”

It is estimated that some 300,000 small whales, dolphins and porpoises die in fishing gear every year worldwide. The British government has said that up to 50 dolphins a day are caught by boats – some of them Scottish – trawling for sea bass off southwest England.

Since January this year, 124 dead cetaceans have been washed up on the Cornish coast, most of them accidentally caught by fishermen. Their beaks or fins get caught in the mesh, or they are trapped by the nets, and they suffocate because they can’t surface to breathe.

In January, the House of Commons Environment Select Committee recommended that, if countries fail to reduce cetacean deaths, the sea bass fishery should be closed for six months. The government is due to respond to the committee’s report on Wednesday.

Trawling for sea bass is done by pairs of boats dragging a net the size of 10 jumbo jets between them. The committee was told that 60 boats from France, up to 12 from Scotland and less than 10 from the Netherlands were involved.

Hamish Morrison, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, confirmed that some Scottish boats fished for sea bass in the south, but accused the WWF of exaggerating the problem of cetacean bycatch.

It was wrong to suggest that the 6000 boats less than 12m long would be likely to catch porpoises because most of them fished for lobsters, crabs and prawns, he said. “We don’t have a cetacean bycatch problem in this part of the world.”

But Mark Simmonds, director of science for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, supported WWF’s accusations. “This is a huge problem,” he told the Sunday Herald.

“European ministers have left some doors flapping. The lack of attention to smaller vessels is significant. The lack of observers is significant and dolphins and porpoises will suffer as a result.”

Simmonds pointed out that there was no way of verifying whether acoustic warning pingers for cetaceans were turned on, or whether they worked. “We are particularly angry that EU ministers have excluded observers from the vessels now required to have pingers,” he said.

Last week, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society criticised the Scottish Executive for not including measures to protect dolphins in its Nature Conservation Bill.

Disturbance by tourist and other boats is also threatening fragile populations like those in the Moray Firth, the society said.