Washed up on our shores, bloody carcasses of dolphins killed by the passion for sea bass

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Salmon? Forget it. Who wants to eat salmon these days? Sea bass is the thing, a small wild one, preferably, grilled whole with fennel in the classic French manner,
loup de mer au fenouil. Yum yum.

Salmon? Forget it. Who wants to eat salmon these days? Sea bass is the thing, a small wild one, preferably, grilled whole with fennel in the classic French manner, loup de mer au fenouil. Yum yum.

But next time you tuck in to what is now Britain's most fashionable fish, spare a thought for dolphins: common dolphins, striped dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, you name them, not to mention the odd pilot whale. For the increasingly aggressive pursuit of sea bass in the Western Approaches and the Bay of Biscay may be behind the massive kills of dolphins that have been taking place in recent weeks off the coasts of Britain and France.

In January alone, 80 dolphins were washed up dead along the shores of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex – as many as were found in the first three months of 2001. Many bore clear signs that they had been caught in fishing nets, and some had been deliberately mutilated, which is what you do if you want a dolphin's body to sink and not to be washed up, incriminatingly, on a beach.

On the Atlantic coast of France, the situation is even worse. Research from the French Marine Mammal Research Centre at the University of La Rochelle shows that between 20 January and 28 January about 300 dead dolphins were washed up on the beaches south of Brittany, and "a majority of them showed clear marks of bycatch" – that is, they had been caught in nets.

Although no one can know for sure, it seems highly likely that many more dolphins were killed at sea than have been found dead on the beaches. Britain's Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society believes that a very likely culprit is the winter sea bass fishery that operates to the south-west of the British Isles, which is made up of about 50 French boats.

Twenty-five years ago, most people in Britain other than sea anglers had never heard of sea bass, Dicentrachus labrax, a handsome member of the grouper family.

Before then, we ate cod and haddock if we were poor, and sole and turbot if we were rich. The French and the Italians, however, had long known what a culinary treat the loup de mer or the spigolawas (as had the Chinese), with its firm, relatively boneless flesh and delicate taste. Then, at the start of the 1980s, came nouvelle cuisine and food as fashion for the first time, and fish was in.

With monkfish and scallops, sea bass became one of the star items in the kitchen. Demand for it skyrocketed everywhere, including in Britain, and has never fallen back. The sea bass combination of desirability and scarcity meant that its price shot past that of salmon, and fishermen began to turn their attention to it seriously.

Such was the assault on the bass stocks that they became threatened and the European Union had to regulate catches. But what has not emerged until now is the scale of the threat not just to the fish from the catch, but to the other living things that get caught up accidentally, the so-called "bycatch", with dolphins at the top of the list.

The fishermen pursuing sea bass are using a technique known as pelagic (open sea) pair trawling, in which two powerful boats draw a big net rapidly through the water, fairly near the surface. Pair trawling is growing in popularity, partly because drift-netting – letting a huge, fine-mesh net hang in the water, into which fish become entangled – was banned completely by the EU on 1 January, as the enormous bycatch it produced, of everything from seals and seabirds to dolphins and turtles, was widely regarded as intolerable.

But, says the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, no one has yet assessed the bycatch effect of pelagic pair trawling; and it may be as indefensible. A recent study by the Irish Sea Fisheries board for the EU concluded that pair trawling was a viable alternative to drift-netting, yet the report showed that in a single season four pairs of trawlers killed 145 dolphins.

Ali Ross, of the conservation society, said: "We have known for years that these pelagic trawl nets are responsible for major dolphin kills. But these findings provide some of the strongest independent and scientific evidence yet of the scale of the problem." Meanwhile, the French sea bass fishery, consisting entirely of pelagic pair trawlers, is in full swing. "The appallingly high dolphin kills and the sea bass fishing are coinciding. We think the finger points at these boats as the main culprits," she said.

No one can know. One of the problems is that the French boats will not allow observers on board, so no one can be sure of what happens one way or another. The conservation group is calling on the EU to address the problem by requiring the pelagic trawlers to be independently monitored, with those fisheries responsible for unacceptable bycatch levels subject to strict management programmes to reduce the damage or face closure.

Ms Ross said: "This is a major conservation and animal welfare issue, and the EU is in the process of reforming the Common Fisheries Policy by the end of 2002. This is an ideal opportunity to address the issue, but the Government seems to be doing nothing about it." Only four boats from Britain, all from Fraserburgh, in north-east Scotland, took part in pelagic pair trawling for sea bass in the Western Approaches last year, and they did not begin fishing until March. They did carry observers, from Britain's own Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews, but their report has not yet been released.

Sea bass are also farmed, but the taste of wild-caught fish is much preferred to that of the farmed ones: they tend to be larger, are said to have a better flavour, and fetch double the price, so the intensive effort to capture them continues.

Alistair Davison, the marine policy officer for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said: "I think for far too long we have been managing fisheries in isolation from the rest of the marine environment. We need to reform the Common Fisheries Policy to deliver a sustainable future for fishing communities and sustainable fish stocks, and at the same time avoid the needless killing of beautiful animals such as dolphins."

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