Why dolphins are paying the price of your sea bass dinner

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Record numbers of dolphins and porpoises are being accidentally killed by fishing fleets off the British coast.

Record numbers of dolphins and porpoises are being accidentally killed by fishing fleets off the British coast.

Marine biologists estimate that in the first three months of this year up to 10,000 dolphins and harbour porpoises were drowned or fatally wounded by trawler nets off Britain and France - the highest figure ever seen.

In south-west England alone, 264 dolphins and porpoises were washed up on beaches during this time - only sevenfewer than the total figure for the whole of last year in the same area.

The escalating number of deaths is linked to the booming restaurant trade in sea bass, as well as to mackerel and sardine fisheries. Biologists estimate that for every two "hauls" by a sea bass trawler, one dolphin is killed in the vast nets dragged for up to 20km by the ships - a problem known as "by-catch".

Conservationists are warning that this death rate is unprecedented, and accuse the European Commission and the British government of failing to take decisive action by suspending the fisheries, cutting the size of nets or restricting fishing areas.

Britain's foremost expert on dolphin strandings, Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum, said that fleets could be paid by the Commission not to fish. "The implications for dolphin populations are very disturbing," he said.

Ali Ross, of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said the animals were suffering violent deaths that would never betolerated by owners of farm animals.

"There's a huge animal welfare and moral issue here," she said. "You're talking about thousands of animals that are suffering an extremely unpleasant and prolonged death which would never be allowed for animals on land.

"They often suffer horrible injuries before they die - beaks are broken, fins are severed and there is internal haemorrhaging."

International experts believe that only one-tenth of the cetaceans killed at sea wash up on shore and have estimated that up to 10,000 had been killed because the French have already found about 700 carcasses on their beaches. Most carcasses are swept into the ocean or sink to the sea floor. In March, 29 dolphin carcasses were seen floating off Dorset by the local coastguard, but none of the bodies reached shore.

Hopes that a solution had been found were raised last week after scientists found that building an "escape hatch" in a net - in the form of a metal grid large enough for cetaceans to swim through - dramatically cut the death rate. The team from St Andrews University found that only two dolphins died in 82 hauls - well below the average death rate of one dolphin for every two hauls.

Attempts to cut "by-catches" are being championed by Elliot Morley MP, the fisheries minister, but experts warned that it would take several years to test, develop and fit similar escape hatches on every trawler in the British and continental fleets.

The Irish and French are also investigating plans to place "pingers" on nets, which send out sounds that deter dolphins. The European Commission is also planning a major research project into new techniques with the Dutch, Irish, British, French and Danes. This could take until 2006 to complete. Unless dangerous fishing techniques are suspended until regulations are improved, common, striped and bottlenose dolphin and harbour porpoise numbers could fall so low that their survival in British waters would be at severe risk.

Mr Sabin, who co-ordinates the British dolphin strandings research programme, said this year's national total was already higher than normal. In 2000, there were 421 reported strandings on beaches, which grew to 655 for the whole of last year. But already this year, there had been 423 fatalities nationwide.

"If this level of mortalities continues, it will be unsustainable. It's probable we will see a fall in the number of common dolphins migrating through British waters over the next few years," he said.

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