Britain seeks end of dolphin killing fields

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Britain is to seek the closure of Europe's major dolphin-killing fishing grounds, where most of the boats involved are French, the Government announced yesterday.

Britain is to seek the closure of Europe's major dolphin-killing fishing grounds, where most of the boats involved are French, the Government announced yesterday.

It is asking the European Commission to shut the winter sea bass fishery in the Western Approaches to the English Channel, where thousands of dolphins are now thought to be dying every year after becoming entangled in fishing nets.

The move was warmly welcomed yesterday by green groups, but it will be strongly resisted by some EU member states, led by France.

The French fleet of 60 or so trawlers are the main participants in the lucrative hunt for what has become Europe's favourite table fish. A smaller number of boats from other nations are involved, including Britain, Ireland, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.

If the Commission refuses to close the fishery, Britain will act unilaterally to ban it within UK territorial waters. Announced by the Fisheries Minister, Ben Bradshaw, the move comes in the wake of mounting evidence of the scale of the killing as increasing numbers of dead dolphins and porpoises are washed up along the Channel coastline.

Environmental groups, led by Greenpeace and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) have been clamouring for action, and have been joined by MPs on the Commons Environment Select Committee.

The problem is caused by pair trawling, the method used for catching sea bass. This involves two trawlers towing gigantic nets between them, with mouths up to 200 metres wide and 60 metres high.

Inevitably, small cetaceans - dolphins and porpoises - which hunt the sea bass shoals, get caught up accidentally as a "bycatch".

Earlier this year the WDCS published a detailed report on cetacean bycatch in the north-east Atlantic, claiming that the total annual mortality figure is "in the thousands, possibly many thousands, and is probably unsustainable".

Although accurate information is difficult to obtain, the number of dolphins and porpoises that are washed up dead on the western coasts of Britain and France in January and February, and showing clear signs of having been caught in nets, has steadily grown. These hundreds of land-stranded animals are assumed to be only a small fraction of those actually killed.

Mr Bradshaw said yesterday that the Government was acting because trial measures aimed at reducing the bycatch were not proving to be effective. In particular a specially-designed "escape grid" fitted in the nets, on which many hopes had been pinned, had been a failure.

Last winter 169 dolphins had been killed in trials using the nets fitted with the grids.

"The level of bycatch observed is unacceptable and it is clear that the grid does not provide an early solution to this problem," he said. "I have concluded therefore that we need European action to deal with this bycatch before the fishery re-opens in November.

"A detailed case will now be put to the [European] Commission for emergency action under the Common Fisheries Policy to close the offshore fishery to pair trawling," Mr Bradshaw said. "This is necessary as the majority of vessels in the fishery are French."

Mr Bradshaw added: "I hope that the Commission and other member states accept the seriousness of this situation and we succeed in getting agreement to an emergency closure.

"If this is not accepted, I will take action to ensure that this fishery does not continue in its present state next season, and will be looking to limit the number of vessels allowed into the fishery and to close the fishery within our national 12-mile limit," he added.

"Alongside this, we will continue with research to identify other fisheries causing bycatch. Our latest research suggests that fisheries other than pair trawling for bass are contributing to the large number of strandings each year."

Sarah Duthie, a Greenpeace oceans campaigner, said: "This historic move by the Government must be welcomed and congratulated. It will save the lives of hundreds of dolphins every year.

"It will certainly be hard work getting this emergency action through the European Commission but the Government has committed itself to banning pair trawling in UK waters if this is not successful.

"An estimated 10,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed in fishing nets around the UK. The Government has taken the first step and it's now time for other countries to follow this example."

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