Brussles: Alarm at toll of dolphin deaths brings EU crackdown on nets

9th Jun 2002 Sonar 'pingers' will be fixed to fishing nets to ward off dolphins while special escape hatches will be fitted to nets to allow the dolphins to escape if caught.

Dolphin carcasses are being washed up on Britain's coast in increasing numbers, with up to 200 found on the beaches of Devon and Cornwall between January and April this year.

Advisers to the Government expect the European proposals to be 'fast-tracked' and applied before January amid evidence that the deaths are linked to the start of the sea bass fisheries in the new year.

Elliot Morley, the Fisheries Minister, admits that fishermen implicated in dolphin deaths could face being banned from operating.

The measures are a triumph for conservationists who have campaigned for a crackdown since 1988 when the mass dolphin slaughter was first identified. The numbers killed are now so high they threaten the survival of the species in British waters, according to some experts who believe thousands are accidentally killed by modern fishing techniques each year.

Dolphins swim through 40-metre net openings to feed on the fish caught by trawlers, but become quickly entangled and drown in the nets. More than 80 per cent of dolphin bodies washed ashore carry injury marks caused by nets, with evidence suggesting some have been mutilated to help the body to sink and destroy any evidence.

'Autopsies on dolphins stranded on the British coast show that a significant proportion of these have died as a result of entanglement in fishing gear,' said Morley.

Under the commission's proposals, Franz Fischler, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, is keen for nets to be fitted with a 'dolphin door' allowing them to swim through, but directing them to an escape hatch in the top. Acoustic pingers will be attached to nets to send sonic warnings to dolphins in the area.

Morley, who said he was 'confident' such innovations would prevent accidental dolphin deaths, said: 'Three years ago people were reluc tant to even admit there was a problem, dolphins were being washed ashore on beaches and everyone denied there was an issue. Finally we have made real progress.'

English Nature, the Government's wildlife advisers, described the proposals as a 'tremendous breakthrough'.

Paul Knapman, fisheries policy officer for English Nature said Denmark had indicated it would fast-track the proposals so they become law by the end of the year.

The moves come after signs that the problem is worsening. Preliminary investigations by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs discovered 53 dead dolphins from 116 bass-fishing hauls.

An Irish government observation on mid-water trawling for tuna recently found 30 dead dolphins in one haul. Another study found an accidental catch of 145 dolphins, porpoises and pilot whales by just four pairs of trawlers in a single season.

The British Government has received hundreds of letters protesting about the numbers of dead dolphins washed up on the beaches.

However, some experts have admitted they don't know the true extent of the problem. Dr Simon North ridge of the Sea Mammal Research Unit in Aberdeen, which has conducted successful trials of the dolphin escape hatch, said: 'If there are 120,000 animals out there, you would have to be taking a 1 to 2 per cent catch a year for it to be a major conservation problem, which is a possibility.'

Last year 200 dead dolphins were found in Devon - and another 2,000 around the rest of the British coastline.

In France the toll is even worse, with conservationists recording 300 dead dolphins in just eight days in January this year on the beaches south of Brittany.

European involvement is essential to halt the killings after evidence that the winter sea bass fishery - which is made up of about 50 French boats - which operates off the south-west of the British Isles has been linked to the incidence of deaths.

Story: www.observer.co.uk