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Trawlers' deadly toll of dolphins

The Scotsman

12th May 2003

SCOTTISH fishing boats trawling off the south-west coast of England have been directly involved in the deaths of up to 7,000 dolphins already this year.

The animals are being killed needlessly as "by-catch" while the boats, together with vessels from France, work the area's bass fishery, The Scotsman has learned.

To date, 350 dolphin carcases have been washed up on the Devon, Dorset and Cornish coasts - and scientists estimate that those represent only 5 per cent of the total killed. Most of the animals, which are drowned after becoming caught in the trawlers' nets, remain at sea.

Campaigners are now lobbying both the Westminster fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, and his European counterpart, Franz Fischler, to introduce legislation to stop the slaughter.

About 12 Scottish boats are thought to be involved, mainly from the port of Fraserburgh. The boats travel to the south-west coast for the first four months of the year to exploit the area's seasonal bass fishery.

However, although bass is a fish with a very high market value, the decline in the fishery over the past decade has been dramatic. In the early 90s boats could expect to land between 50 and 60 tonnes a time; today they return to harbour with as little of two tonnes of catch.

Spaced about a mile apart when out at sea, the bass trawlers work in pairs dragging a very large net between them at high speed to match the fish they are pursuing.

When they begin to haul in the catch, the dolphins enter the nets to catch easy prey.

Joan Edwards, the Wildlife Trust's UK marine manager, said: "The Scottish vessels have been coming down for the last few years now and always use Plymouth as their home port. There are about 12 boats in total and they were here from very early January.

"These boats are going after fish that swim mid-water, but unfortunately so are the dolphins and other cetaceans.

"We have been campaigning and have had meetings with the Westminster fisheries minister. She is very concerned about the whole issue himself, and has raised the issue with the European Commission. The problem is that because the bass fishery is beyond six miles off the coast the only people that can take any action are the EC through the Common Fisheries Policy."

Special devices which allow the dolphins to escape being drowned in the fast-moving nets, called Nordman separator grids, were tested on three of the Scottish boats in March.

However, many remain sceptical about their efficiency in the light of injuries that might be sustained by the escaping dolphins. A similar system has been used in New Zealand where it was found to inflict serious injuries on sea lions.

The results of the trials, which are being written up by the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at St Andrews University, will not be available until the end of this month.

Mrs Edwards added: "There are no controls at the moment and the Fraserburgh fishermen have every right to go and catch bass because they are struggling. We are not blaming the fishermen but the European Commission for failing to regulate our fisheries in a sustainable way and introduce laws which stipulate that they must use certain gear to stop this happening.

"The EC have to bring in measures to reduce the dolphin by-catch and make sure than the bass fishery lasts into the future and does not go down the same road as North Sea cod."

Derek Duthie, secretary of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association, said: "There is an issue in this fishery of cetacean by-catch of common dolphins. I can't comment on the numbers that have been caught this year, but only three of our vessels are involved in this fishery and are working to try and find a solution. Some of our members have actually been involved in a project with the SMRU to devise a grid to allow dolphins to escape and be excluded from the catch."

Steve Sankey, the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which is backing the campaign, said: "This terrible loss of thousands of dolphins is wholly unnecessary and the public should be outraged. We need to start managing our seas in a sustainable way.

"Regulating the bass fishery is an essential pre-requisite to saving the dolphins. Changes to fishing practices and the provision of observers on board boats are urgently required."


This article refers to “Nordman grids”; these are usually referred to as NORDMORE grids.

The development of the rigid bar, solid grid separator trawl for pandalid shrimps--the so-called Nordmore grate or grid--took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Olsen 1991; Isaksen et al. 1990, 1992). Grids, similar to those recently trialed in European waters, and intended to reduce cetacean bycatch, were used in a New Zealand squid fishery, in an attempt to reduce sea lion bycatch.

However, the sea lions suffered severe injuries to their heads, chests, abdomens and flippers. As a result of the number of sea lion deaths, and the injuries sustained by those escaping through the hatches, the fishery was closed.

In the opinion of scientists in New Zealand, the sea lions, which did not drown in the nets, and managed to escape through the hatches, would not have survived due to their injuries.

In the opinion of the same scientists, marine mammal experts, the injuries sustained by cetaceans would be even more severe, and it would also be far more difficult to gauge the numbers of animals dying as a result of bycatch. The view is shared by a significant number of marine wildlife organisations.

It is worthy of note that during the first SMRU study, trials of the grid were suspended when fishermen objected to the loss of fish catch, (SMRU report to ). In order for the loss of fish catch to be minimised, the angle of elevation of the grid has to be altered . In doing so, any marine mammal will be “sucked” towards the grid, FRS studies have shown this to be the case.

It is also worthy of note that when smaller versions of the grid are used as Turtle Excluder Devices in US fisheries, they are often removed when detritus fouls the grids in heavy sea conditions. Intended use in EU fisheries is primarily in winter months.