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EU plans for dolphin-friendly Baltic

By Alex Kirby - Environment correspondent

BBC News Online

23rd July 2003

Harbour porpoise, south-west England
Image copyright David Ball/WDCS)

The waters of north-west Europe should soon be safer for dolphins, thanks to a European Union plan.

It proposes extending the driftnet ban from the Atlantic to the Baltic.

Boats in some EU waters will have to fit audible warnings to their nets, and carry onboard observers.

Thousands of dolphins and porpoises - known scientifically as cetaceans - die annually in EU waters after becoming accidentally trapped in fishing nets.

An EU driftnet ban came into force in 2002. It applies to all boats fishing in EU waters, and to all EU boats in any waters - but only to those catching named species, including tuna and swordfish.

Driftnets in the Baltic, used mainly to catch salmon, will now be included.

The proposals, being published by the European Commission on 24 July, would:

initially limit the length of driftnets used in the Baltic to 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles), before phasing them out completely by 1 January 2007

oblige boats in some areas to use "pingers" (acoustic deterrent devices) on their nets to scare away dolphins, porpoises and other small cetaceans

introduce a compulsory scheme of shipboard observers to monitor cetacean bycatch.

The UK fisheries covered by the proposed pinger rule include the English Channel, the Celtic and the North seas.
The proposals now have to secure the approval of EU fisheries ministers and the European Parliament.

Voracious destroyers

Glyn Ford, the Labour MEP for the South West of England, said: "By tackling the Baltic sea, the EU is targeting one of the biggest problem areas.

"Clearly we have concerns that the driftnet ban should
go wider, but we will have the information from the
onboard monitors to make that case if necessary.

"We are talking about driftnets the size of football pitches,
scooping up everything in their way.

Common dolphin taken as bycatch
(Image copyright Colin Wood/WDCS)

"Dolphins use sonar to hunt and avoid obstacles, even in the dark. Yet despite this sophisticated navigation system, thousands die each year when they become entangled in fishing nets.

"In my own region, over 200 dolphins and porpoises were found dead around the coast in Devon and Cornwall between January and March this year. That's averaging two a day."

Many of these fatalities are thought to have been caused by trawl nets, often towed by pairs of boats.

The European fisheries commissioner, Franz Fischler, who is proposing the new rules, is well aware they will be strongly contested by some member states.

Up to a point

His office says that because of "the high political sensitivity of the cetacean bycatch problem, this proposal will certainly lead to intensive debate in [the Fisheries] Council and European Parliament."

Mark Simmonds, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), told BBC News Online: "The involvement of the European Commission in this problem is very good.

" But it would be wrong to think the pingers are going to be silver bullets. They work on some nets, but not all.

"And with them there's a danger of turning parts of the sea into dolphin exclusion zones, just fish production areas.

"But anything that takes us in the direction of observers on boats must be right, and we welcome that."