War at sea: Greenpeace fights to save dolphins from the nets

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Skimming the peaks of mountainous waves, plunging into space then hitting the bottom of watery canyons with a great slap that leaves your stomach some way behind, the inflatable boats tear across the English Channel towards the target.

Skimming the peaks of mountainous waves, plunging into space then hitting the bottom of watery canyons with a great slap that leaves your stomach some way behind, the inflatable boats tear across the English Channel towards the target.

The Greenpeace boats are heading for two French trawlers, which appear intermittently between rolling blue hills of water. Trailing between them is a massive net, its presence under the waves signalled by two buoys on the surface a couple of hundred metres behind the ships.

At that moment, many feet below, this net is scooping up the loose shoals of the gleaming prize, fish which gather to spawn at this time of year; sea bass in Britain, loup de mer to the French. And among the sea bass may be dolphins, gorging on a smorgasbord of smaller fry, unsuspecting of the nets that will haul them in.

Campaigners say dolphins, who have to come up for air every six minutes or so, are dying in their hundreds, possibly thousands, each year, drowning entangled in the nets of these "pair" trawlers.

Their bodies are usually dumped back by the fishermen, their bellies slit to make them sink quickly. And by a combination of persuasion and harassment, the Greenpeace boats are trying to stop the fishing and save the dolphins.

This morning, persuasion by shortwave radio fails. "They say we cut their buoys before and it didn't stop them, so they say they don't care what we do now," Francoise Provost, a Greenpeace protester says. He gives a Gallic shrug. "So, you can go then," he says to Stan Vincent, the Greenpeace logistics co-ordinator.

We are in two "ribs" or rigid inflatable boats, fast, light-weight and manoeuvrable. One, piloted by Vincent, contains the Greenpeace volunteers who will try to free the buoys and allow the net to drift down, seriously affecting the size and quality of the catch. The second has The Independent, with a Greenpeace photographer and film cameraman.

The operation is dangerous. The Greenpeace volunteers, armed with bolt-cutters, try to reach the buoys and boats have to cope with the swell, keeping pace with the trawlers and the presence of a new factor: two other non-fishing trawlers, who have come to support their colleagues by bearing down in an intimidating fashion on the ribs.

The attempt is abandoned when the pair of trawlers speed up, pulling the buoys underwater. The Greenpeace boats catch up and begin plan B. Vincent carefully manoeuvres in close to attach a sea anchor - a device akin to an underwater parachute - to the net ropes to drag it down. We are now surrounded by three of the four trawlers, looming above us as the sea heaves around.

The fishermen shout something indistinguishable in French, but definitely not an invitation to come on board for café au lait. "Watch your heads in case they start throwing something,'' warns Kevin, the Scottish pilot of our boat, who struggles to control the rib and keep a safe distance from the other vessels.

Sure enough, a big metal shackle is lobbed at the other boat, landing harmlessly. Those on board have already donned climbers' helmets. There is momentary alarm when we see men on the closest non-fishing boat fiddling with black objects that could be flare guns; they soon turn out to be cameras.

By now the French have lost patience and their net is being winched in several hours before it would normally have been, and we wait for several tense minutes to see whether any dead dolphins are in the netting. The result is nothing, not a dolphin, bass or fish of any kind. Even the gannets and fulmars scooting across the waves wheel away disappointed.

All four boats head off and are pursued at high speed by Greenpeace to try to deter them from casting again. We are soaked with biting spray, as the ribs fight the waves. "Sometimes these games of cat and mouse can go on for hours," says Gavin Newman, the Greenpeace cameraman.

This morning's skirmish is part of a battle that has been fought in an area 20 to 40 miles south of Plymouth, since the Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza, crewed by a multi-national team of Greenpeace employees and volunteers, arrived in mid-February. There has been increasing acrimony from the fishermen, who aim their boats at the inflatables, throw objects and fire flares at the protesters. Coastguards have warned both sides to back off, in case someone is seriously injured or killed.

The day before, safety fears cut short an attempt to sever the buoys from the now non-fishing pair. Vincent decided the swell made it too hazardous. The boats had been tracked overnight by the Esperanza and this morning's mission was launched at first light when the second pair was sighted.

Now it is mid-morning and after nearly an hour's chase, it looks as if all the trawlers are heading for their home port of Cherbourg. Vincent signals it time to return to the Esperanza. Back on the bridge, he says: "A good morning's work. Two trawlers forced to haul in their nets after only a couple of hours, two others harassing us, and therefore not fishing themselves. And they all give up and head for port, so they have stopped fishing for a while. A small victory."

The bigger victory sought by Greenpeace and other groups such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, who have observers on board gathering data on all cetacean populations, is a total ban on trawling in the area to preserve dolphins.

Based on official British figures of dolphin by-catch by the few Scottish pair trawlers, campaigners estimate up to 2,000 dolphins are killed by fishing here each year, an unacceptable proportion, they say, of a total population of at least 9,700.

The dolphins, which gather to feed in early spring, started to suffer only when the sea bass fishery began nearly 20 years ago, in response to rising demand. The rest of the world woke up to the slaughter only two years ago when scores of dead dolphins were washed up on Cornish and Devon shores.

"If action is not taken now, our children will never get to see dolphins in the English Channel because we are pushing them to extinction," says Sarah Duthie, head of Greenpeace's oceans campaign. Protesters have dumped dead dolphins - many bearing the scars of nets - at the French embassy and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London. Finding a lactating female dolphin, say Greenpeace, is particularly distressing, knowing its calf might still be out there.

Last year, the Government banned pair fishing within 12 miles of the British coast, but ministers say pressure should be brought on the French, whose presence is the biggest in a fishery mostly in international waters. Twenty French trawler pairs and just two Scots ones have been in the area this year. Although the French trawlermen deny killing dolphins in large numbers, their government says it wants to resolve the problem without affecting their livelihoods.

Greenpeace say Britain's 12-mile ban is irrelevant because most fishing is outside it. They say the Government has the power to institute a temporary ban to protect a threatened species. Greenpeace is bringing a High Court action to force the Government's hand.

SLAUGHTER ON AN INDUSTRIAL SCALE

  • Sea bass spawn in the Channel between February and March. The area is between 20 and 40 miles south of the Devon and Cornwall coast.
  • It is also home to an estimated 9,700 common dolphins, feeding on smaller fish. Other species of dolphins and porpoises, as well as fin whales, minke whales and basking sharks have also been recorded
  • At least 20 pairs of French trawlers fish the area, and a few Scottish pair trawlers. They trail huge nets between and behind them, hauling in about every eight hours.
  • British pair trawlers accounted for the deaths of an estimated 400-plus dolphins last year. They drown tangled in the nets because they have to surface for air every six minutes or so. Campaigners say 2,000 die every year.
  • Dolphins, found in almost all the oceans, can be taught complex tasks. Researchers say their intelligence is greater than that of dogs.
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