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How to save the dolphin: refuse the sea bass caught by trawlers
By Danielle Demetriou

The Independent

31st May 2004

First came dolphin-friendly tuna; now sea bass are set to be the focus of a new fight to prevent the deaths of thousands of dolphins every year.

Restaurants and hotels are banning the use of sea bass caught using fishing methods that have been linked to the killing of dolphins off the South-west coast. Residents in the region have joined the boycott of sea bass caught by "pair trawlers".

The method, which involves two powerful boats towing a giant net, has been widely blamed for a sharp rise in the number of dolphin deaths. The method of fishing provides the majority of sea bass available in fishmongers.

More than 250 dolphins have been washed ashore in Devon and Cornwall since the start of the year and environmentalists believe the figure represents less than 10 per cent of the total number killed by pair trawlers. Concerns have also been raised surrounding an increase in sightings of other dead sea creatures caught between the nets of pair trawlers, including porpoises and minke whales. Politicians have called for a total ban of bass pair trawling in British and European waters, but campaigners have been frustrated at the slow pace of official developments.

The idea of a boycott of sea bass caught by pair trawlers was initiated by the Totnes and District Licensed Traders Association. Dozens of restaurants, hotels and wine bars across Devon and Cornwall have promised to serve only hand-line-caught sea bass. The boycott is spreading and the House of Commons catering committee has promised to also serve only hand-line-caught sea bass.

"We were all simply fed up with seeing dolphins getting washed onto shore," said Cris Dixon, chairman of the association. "The idea has become increasingly popular and more and more establishments are taking part in it now. We're aiming for it to become a nationwide ban eventually.” Deborah Clark, owner of the Burgh Island Hotel in South Devon said: "It is something that concerns us from an ethical and a moral point of view, which is why a boycott is something we totally support. All our fish is line-caught daily from the smaller day boats and so we take whatever is caught. We haven't had sea bass on the menu for months now.

"We see four or five dolphins washed up on the island during the sea bass season. It's just not ecological to fish in this way."

Chefs at Rick Stein's seafood restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall, which uses only local hand-line-caught fish, also voiced their support for a ban on bass pair trawling. Other establishments supporting the boycott include The Royal Castle Hotel in Dartmouth, the Oyster Shack in Bigbury and The Sea Trout in Staverton. The acclaimed Carved Angel restaurant in Dartmouth, which reopened last week under the name The New Angel, has also committed itself to serving hand-line fish only.

A day of pair trawling could yield up to 40,000 worth of sea bass; a hand-line fisherman by contract might catch only about 20 worth of sea bass. The quantity of fish landed by pair trawling had, however, led to a "glut" of sea bass on the market, said Matthew Stevens, of M Stevens & Son, which supplies many of Cornwall's most prestigious restaurants. "During the winter months, almost all the sea bass on sale at the market is caught by pair trawlers," he said. "But it is essential to endorse a sustainable method of fishing. The market does not need trawler-caught bass and the public do not want it."

Conservationists say a "vast" number of dolphins are being condemned to "agonising" deaths by the fishing technique. Lindy Hingley, founder of Brixham Seawatch, said: "There are as many as 10,000 dolphins being killed in large family packs every sea bass season, which runs between September and April. The trawls cover a huge area and they catch everything that comes their way. Dolphins are protected marine mammals and it is totally illegal to kill or catch them. But they are dying the most agonising slow deaths because of the pair trawlers."

Conservationists say that there are up to 25 French and 12 Scottish pair trawlers operating off the South-west coast.

Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay, and Candy Atherton, MP for Falmouth and Camborne, are among politicians who have been campaigning for a Europe-wide ban on sea bass trawling. Mr Sanders has tabled a Commons motion calling on the Government to boycott trawler-caught sea bass in all its catering outlets. Ms Atherton has chaired a Commons committee on the issue, which concluded that the Government should do more to prevent the dolphin deaths.

Mr Sanders said: "There are currently no regulations on sea bass fisheries in these waters. Both the UK Government and the EC have admitted there's a problem and they have both committed to trying out a number of ideas that may reduce the number of by-catch. However, progress is very slow and I do not feel it's necessary to sit and wait through two more seasons of unnecessary slaughter. There should be an immediate ban on pair trawling in our waters and beyond. Then if there were fewer carcasses we would know why."

Valentine Krykunivsky, one of an estimated 80 members of the Plymouth Trawlers Owners' Association, denied that pair trawling was responsible for more than "one or two" dolphin deaths. "There's no proof of substance in any of the allegations," Mr Krykunivsky said. "There are all sorts of other hazards facing them at sea It's a fact of life that sometimes they are inadvertently going to get caught, but not as many as is claimed. If there was a total ban it would put a lot of people out of work."

While the Government has not backed the boycott, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said it was awaiting the outcome of independent research conducted by the Small Mammal Research Unit at the University of Aberdeen. "We are obviously aware that bass pair trawling has been linked with the deaths of dolphins," she said. "We will consider a ban on pair trawling along with other options once we have got the findings of the latest research."