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Dolphin slaughter hits new heights

MPs demand halt to use of killer nets in hunt for sea bass off UK's coasts

Mark Townsend
January 19, 2003
The Observer

The beached body had not died of natural causes. A deep incision ran the length of the mammal's stomach; a series of stab wounds punctured her scalp.

Marine expert David Ball last week knelt down to inspect the dolphin's wounds and grimaced. The injuries appeared to have been inflicted by fishermen who had attempted to drown the evidence of their crime by slashing the creature.

In the next cove, there was another grotesque scene. A dolphin, its head and tail hacked off with a fishing knife, lay with its rotting innards seeping out.

Record numbers of dolphins have been washed on to the West Country coast in recent weeks. The vast majority bear the telltale signs of capture by fishermen.

So far this year, 54 such creatures have been found on the shores of Devon and Cornwall. In December 32 dead dolphins and porpoises were recorded on the Cornish coast alone. All available evidence suggests the culprits are French, Dutch and Danish fishermen who have taken advantage of the decline of the UK fishing industry to chase the increasingly popular sea bass.

The methods they use devastate Britain's dolphin population. Massive nets are slung between two trawlers up to two kilometres apart.

These can hang a mile beneath the surface, swallowing an area large enough to consume 12 jumbo jets. Conservationists believe such unscrupulous fishing practices will eventually drive the species to extinction.

Laila Sadler, the RSPCA's marine scientific officer, believes hundreds of dolphins a week could be perishing during the sea bass fishing season. The death toll off UK coasts could be as high as 10,000 a year. Yet a lack of hard scientific evidence means that no one knows precisely the true level of the carnage.

What is clear, however, is the likelihood of a sharp upturn in dolphin deaths in the coming weeks. Ferocious storms are forecast for the West Country with the potential to drive hundreds of corpses inshore.

Stella Turk, 77, has been compiling Cornwall's database of dolphin deaths for a decade. 'There is no doubt whatsoever that the numbers have been increasing for the past few years.'

This week the issue will be debated in the House of Commons when Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat MP for Truro, will demand urgent action to halt the 'increas ingly common and horrific sight on our beaches'.

It is a sight all too familiar to Fiona Guy and her two daughters Amber, 10, and seven-year-old Hazel.

Last summer, inspired by the film Captain Corelli's Mandolin - featuring actor Christian Bale as a Greek fisherman who swims with dolphins - they visited Cephalonia to marvel at the creatures first-hand.

But a short stroll two weeks ago on Cornwall's Whitsand Bay offered a very different view of the common dolphin. Then, they stumbled across the mutilated remains of a baby dolphin.

Once dolphins become ensnared in the huge fishing nets there is no escape. Typically their beaks will be broken and their flippers torn off as they attempt to break through the industrial-strength plastic mesh.

Ball, who officially records deaths for Cornwall's Silver Dolphin marine conservation centre, said: 'When the nets are pulled in sometimes a dolphin's head is trapped. This is chopped off.

'Frequently fishermen stab the carcass in the sides of the head and slice open its stomach in the misguided belief the dolphin will sink.

'But worryingly nowadays we are getting three or four on a beach, not just one any more.'

Almost a year ago the Government promised to modify the vast sea bass nets with hatches that would allow dolphins to escape.

Trials of the nets were due to start last month. Until farce struck. First, the camera designed to monitor the net's effectiveness was lost when it fell off the UK vessel.

Worse followed when a Dutch research boat accidentally rammed the trial boat, disabling it for weeks. The incident infuriated Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley, who has repeatedly called for observers to monitor the dolphin 'by-catch' on French trawlers. 'Nobody wants to see dead dolphins washed up on beaches, and that includes me,' said Morley.

His frustration is shared by Lindy Hingley of Brixham Seawatch, Devon, who was appointed an MBE for services to marine conservation. This week she will decide whether to return it. 'It would be a protest statement to the Government and the world at large that the problem is getting worse.'