Video evidence linking fishing fleets to the unexplained deaths of dozens of dolphinsoff Devon and Cornwall has been obtained by government investigators.
The footage is understood to provide proof of the harm caused by trawlers using vast "pelagic" nets believed responsible for the deaths of more than 40 dolphins over the winter off the West Country.
Candy Atherton, the Falmouth and Camborne Labour MP who has called for action over dolphin deaths, said she was delighted with the breakthrough. Officials at the Minis-try of Agriculture and Fisheries are ready to take action through the European Union.
Last week, the Fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, said the Government was funding a three-year study by the Sea Mammal Research Unit into the effects of trawler fisheries on the dolphin population. He was "concerned" by the number of dolphins washed up. His ministry officials say post- mortem evidence suggests they were killed by nets.
One change being backed is for observers to monitor the catches of all trawlers using pelagic nets, as happens in the Pacific. Yesterday, a ministry spokesman said observers were already being sent to sea.
The nets, as big as a football stadium, are dragged mid-water between two trawlers and can trap up to 750 tonnes of fish in one haul. Dolphins darting in and out of the nets for food are trapped and drown as the nets are hauled in.
Ms Atherton said: "I have spoken with the Scottish minister and Mr Morley and they are quite clear action needs to be taken to protect these vulnerable mammals. I am informed they will take action as soon as they have evidence proving these individuals use these nets.
"Action can be taken against trawlers using these methods but it has to be taken by the European Union. The trawlers it is alleged are involved are denying they are using these types of nets, so this evidence is amazingly helpful," she said.
Linda Hingley, a spokeswoman for Brixham Seawatch, believes five pairs of Scottish trawlers and at least 30 French boats are to blame. Conservationists fear the dozens of dolphins found may be a fraction of the true toll from pelagic nets. Giant trawlers have been fishing for bass, mackerel and other oily fish off the south-west coast for two months.
The ministry said action would be taken against fishermen found to be deliberately causing the deaths of protected species. Dolphins eat large quantities of fish and are not always popular with seafarers. Trawlermen say dolphins will continue being accidentally caught in nets as "bycatch".
Helen McLaughlan, the RSPCA's marine consultant said: "The US and eastern Pacific has already implemented measures to reduce the number of dolphins caught, yet the UK and other European member states are still faffing around asking what should be done."
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society said the porpoise population off the Celtic Shelf around Devon and Cornwall was dying at an unsustainable rate because of fishing. Up to 6 per cent of the total catch is estimated to be porpoises.Reuse content