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Dolphin friendly net trials a joke

Western Morning News

30th January 2004

The Government should be given two years to prove that new fishing nets can cut the level of dolphin deaths off the Westcountry coast to an "acceptable" level, a committee of MPs said yesterday.

In its long-awaited report on dolphin deaths, the Commons environment committee said the Government should consider the closure of the controversial winter bass fishery - but only if two more years of research on new "dolphin-friendly" nets failed to yield results.

The conclusions yesterday brought a sharp response from Westcountry conservationist Lindy Hingley, who said that the further delay would condemn thousands more dolphins to painful deaths in fishing nets.

Ms Hingley, the founder of Brixham Seawatch, was one of a number of experts called to give evidence to the committee. But she said she was disappointed with the findings.

"There is no such thing as an acceptable level of dolphin deaths," she said. "These beautiful, intelligent creatures suffer the most appalling deaths - every one is too many. The net trials are a joke. I do not believe they will prove effective and another two years of delay means that thousands more will be killed. It is very disappointing - no one seems to be on their side."

In recent years, the WMN has highlighted the plight of the hundreds of dead dolphins washed up on the shores of the Westcountry each winter, many apparently caught in fishing nets.

Concern has focused on the winter bass fishery in the English Channel and Western Approaches, where powerful trawlers operating in pairs tow giant nets slung between them, scooping up everything in their wake.

Candy Atherton, who chaired the Commons inquiry, said the committee accepted that the winter bass fishery posed a serious problem, but she said more study was needed of the impact of other fisheries that could be involved.

Ms Atherton, Labour MP for Falmouth and Camborne, said MPs had been impressed by the potential of the new nets being tested by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

But she said if they were proved to be effective they should be fitted to all boats operating in the fishery - including those from other countries. The fishery is dominated by the French fleet and the committee urged the European Union to close the fishery altogether for a trial period if France refused to accept the new nets.

Ms Atherton said current Government measures to reduce dolphin deaths do not go far enough, adding: "The Government must do more to protect dolphins and porpoises, through agreement with other countries who fish off our shores or, if necessary, pushing for emergency measures in the European Union."

The committee recommended that all fisheries face new limits on the level of dolphin by-catch. She said: "We regret any dolphin or porpoise death, but it is a problem all around the world. You would have to stop all fishing to stop all dolphin by-catch and that is not a realistic option."

The committee also urged the Government to force all boats using gill nets, not just larger ones, to fit electronic "pingers" to deter harbour porpoises. But it warned that there was no reason to believe that inshore boats were not also catching dolphins. The recommendation is likely to anger Cornish hake fishermen, who rely on gill nets for their livelihood and who warn that pingers could be too costly.