Hi-tech 'pinger' to save dolphins from fishing nets

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Conservationists in Cornwall are planning to use a hi-tech sonic device in a battle to save the last group of bottlenose dolphins to swim in English waters.

The dolphin group, or pod as it is known, is well known for swimming alongside people off the Cornish coast. But its population has dwindled to a dangerously low number of six, a dramatic fall since 1991 when the number stood at 18.

Wildlife experts fear that the loss of another one or two from the genetically unique group would spell its end. And so they are hoping to introduce pioneering "pinger" devices to trawlers. The devices emit a signal designed to drive the dolphins clear of the fishing nets.

The South-west is suffering from a record high number of strandings of cetaceans, mainly common dolphins and porpoises. Last month a study by the University of Exeter and Cornwall Wildlife Trust revealed that until the 1980s, about 50 dolphins and porpoises were found on beaches in an average year. Since 2000 the figure has climbed to between 100 and 250 a year, with about 60 per cent believed to be the victims of bycatch in the fishing industry. In June, 26 common dolphins were washed ashore in Falmouth.

Researchers are particularly concerned about the bottlenose dolphin group that swims in the coastal waters of Devon and Cornwall. In October a young bottlenose was washed up in St Ives harbour with a severed tail – indicating it was cut loose after drowning in fishing nets.

At the time, Ruth Williams, marine conservation officer for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said: "This is a devastating blow to everyone who has enjoyed seeing these beautiful creatures. We know that bottlenose dolphins are in danger of disappearing from Cornish waters as gradually, one by one, their numbers are dwindling."

Dr Nick Tregenza of the trust added: "We know the animals are reproducing, so it's particularly worrying that their numbers are in decline."

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