French bass fishing blamed for increase in dolphin deaths
By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor
11th February 2003
The number of dead dolphins washed ashore on Britain's south-west coast is soaring, leading to new calls for action against French sea bass trawlers that are strongly suspected of killing them.
In January alone, 115 animals were found dead in Devon and Cornwall, compared with 63 in January last year, and 17 in January 2001. More bodies are still being found on beaches almost every day, with many showing obvious signs of being caught in fishing nets, such as broken beaks and damaged skin.
It is likely that the animals washed ashore reflect only a fraction of the animals killed, and the figures indicate a very high and rising death toll of dolphins out at sea.
Yesterday, Elliot Morley, the Fisheries minister, said the new figures were "alarming" and called for all European countries to adopt a system of observers on fishing boats, which has already been agreed in Brussels, and is seen as a first step to end the killing. He said: "This is an unacceptable mortality, and it has to stop."
The likeliest culprit is widely believed to be the French pelagic (open sea) fishery for sea bass, now one of Europe's most sought-after fish.
The boats, thought to number up to 50, come from French Channel and Atlantic ports and operate in the Western Approaches. Their technique involves powerful trawlers operating in pairs and drawing a big net rapidly through the water near the surface, to trap the large bass shoals, which begin to head back to the coasts to spawn in the first three months of the year.
The technique is very effective but unfortunately is also lethal to dolphins, and the rapidly rising death toll over the past three years is a clear indication that the fishing effort is intensifying.
Today, Britain's Wildlife Trusts, which are collating the dolphin death figures, are to launch a campaign to get the EU to try and halt the killings.
Simon Lyster, the Wildlife Trusts' director general, said: "It is an absolute disgrace that despite repeated warnings the EU has done nothing to stop hundreds of dolphins dying in an unregulated sea bass fishery, which is unsustainable and likely to lead to a collapse of bass stocks.
"I have rarely felt so angry that bureaucrats are dithering whilst the slaughter of our dolphins goes on. The fishery should be closed immediately, and the UK government should put maximum pressure on the EU to halt this horrendous waste of life."
The trusts are launching a petition that calls for the immediate ban of the sea bass fishery until changes in fisheries' practices, management and regulation are put into place that reduce the current dolphin deaths. It also calls for independent observers on all European pelagic boats as a minimum requirement.
The observers would not stop the killing but would be independent recorders of the methods and results.
Mr Morley said Britain alone among EU members had sent observers out on every fishery in the western channel, including those for mackerel, sprats and pilchards, and the winter sea bass fishery was the only one where dolphin deaths had been observed. However, British participation in it was minimal, and usually involved no more than four boats.
An EU-wide system of observers was agreed in Brussels in December, Mr Morley said, and he had recently written to the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, asking for it to be brought in as soon as possible. "We are the only country doing anything whatsoever," he said. "It is time for other member states to face up to their responsibilities."
At the end of this month, Britain will begin trials of a new "dolphin-friendly" net, which is designed to let trapped animals escape through a special hatch. "It is still at the experimental stage but it is looking very promising, and if it is successful we will seek to make it mandatory across the whole of the EU," Mr Morley said.
Joan Edwards, the Wildlife Trusts' director of marine conservation, said: "This is the fifth year I have witnessed mutilated dolphins being washed up on the shores of south-west England. We need people to understand bass fishery is unsustainable. The implications for the South-west economy are being neglected. Tourism, local fishermen, sea angling, wildlife watching; all provide millions of pounds to the local economy. This fishery is killing dolphins and potentially will harm the local economy."