28th January 2006 Fishermen have claimed calls to ban gill netting off Cornwall in a bid to protect dolphins could sap the life blood of coastal communities.
Nearly 300 small Cornish fishing boats use gill netting, in which nets are laid across the seabed to entangle fish by the gills. They operate close inshore.
Marine conservationists have hit out at the fishery, claiming it is responsible for some of the 70 cetacean carcasses washed up on Westcountry shores this winter. They have called on the industry to impose a ban on gill netting one mile offshore.
But Paul Trebilcock, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation, which represents gill netters, said dolphins and porpoises were "very rarely" trapped in the nets. He said fishermen suspected that those which were caught had died further out to sea before being washed up. He said there was no hard evidence to show dolphins died in gill nets.
Trebilcock added that fishermen were keen to work with conservationists to stop dolphin deaths, and had imposed their own guidelines to reduce the problem. But he said: "Banning gill netting one mile off shore would threaten the industry. The fishery is based in rural economies which are the life blood of Cornwall. The tourists would not have pretty villages to look at if there was no trade to sustain them."
Every year, scores of dolphins and porpoises are washed up on beaches around Devon and Cornwall. Campaigners believe many of them die after being caught in the huge nets dragged between two pair trawlers fishing for bass. These boats are mainly operated by French and Scottish fishermen and are banned within 12 miles of the coast.
But Dr Nick Tregenza, of Seaquest, an organisation which represents the marine interests of both Cornwall and Devon wildlife trusts, said some carcasses showed the distinctive signs of dying in gill nets. He said: "Some are found wrapped in gill nets, and others carry the unmistakable marks of having been caught in them."
Dr Tregenza said Cornwall Sea Fisheries had "totally rejected" a request on a one-mile ban.
Most of the cetaceans found dead on beaches have this year been in Cornwall. Since the fishing season began in October, 64 have been found, 38 of them this month alone. In Devon, a further nine carcasses have been reported.
Dr Tregenza said some of the bodies were still showing the signs of being caught in trawling nets, despite a ban on the fishery within 12 miles of the UK coastline. He said: "There are more dolphins outside the 12-mile zone, so we would expect the mid-water death rate to go up, even if strandings are down.
"The reason there was support for the 12-mile ban is that there was hope it might get taken up by the European Union, which might do something on a wider scale, but it hasn't."
Dr Tregenza now believes the solution lies in developing technology to keep dolphins out of nets.
Cornwall Sea Fisheries declined to comment on the issue, but a DEFRA spokeswoman said: "Research into net marks found on cetaceans is being undertaken. The increasing number of harbour porpoises and common dolphin strandings recorded in the South West in recent years could reflect a genuine increase in mortality of these two species, although closer analysis of the strandings data suggests that other factors such as changes in abundance and distribution of these species and particularly increased coastal vigilance for stranded carcasses in Cornwall and Devon probably play a considerable role."