Wildlife groups want law change to save dolphins endangered by coastal fishing

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The Independent Online

More than 8,000 dolphins are estimated to have been killed in the past 12 months around the South-west coast of England, fuelling fears that they could soon be extinct in the area.

More than 8,000 dolphins are estimated to have been killed in the past 12 months around the South-west coast of England, fuelling fears that they could soon be extinct in the area.

The dolphins have been killed after becoming trapped in the nets of boats working the bass fishery six miles off the coast of Devon.

This year alone, 350 dolphin carcasses have been washed up on the Devon, Dorset and Cornish coasts. But conservationists estimate they represent less than 5 per cent of the total killed needlessly as "by-catch".

The bass trawlers, which include about a dozen from north-east Scotland and many from France, trawl the area for the first four months of every year in search of the seasonal bass fish, which can command lucrative prices.

Working in pairs about a mile apart, the fishing boats drag a large net between them at high speed to scoop up the shoals of bass but often snare dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks by accident. "Whole family groups can be wiped out in a single trawl by these boats," said Ian Findlay, head of conservation for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, a group that is backing calls for tougher safeguards.

"It's not the fishermen's fault. They are working perfectly legally within the parameters which are set down but there needs to be tougher legislation from Europe to deal with this very major problem.

"If nothing is done we could see whole colonies wiped out – especially when you think that, in the first three months of this year, hundreds of dolphins have been washed up on the south coast and that's only five per cent of the total slaughter." The Wildlife Trust, a consortium of the 47 local wildlife trusts throughout the UK, is calling for mandatory observers to be put on board pelagic fishing boats and better legislation to protect the marine environment.

Joan Edwards, the Wildlife Trust's UK marine manager, said: "There are no controls at the moment. The European Commission needs to regulate our fisheries in a sustainable way and introduce laws to stipulate the use of certain gear to stop this happening and reduce the dolphin by-catch.

"We need to make sure the bass fishery lasts into the future and does not go down the same road as North Sea cod."

Among the technological advances being touted by conservationists is the introduction of Nordman separator grids, which allow the dolphins to escape being drowned in the fast-moving nets.

A similar system has already been used in New Zealand and there have been trials with three Scottish fishing boats – the results of which are expected to be published by the team at the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University next month.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association admitted the by-catch of dolphins was a serious issue but said that his members were actively involved in trying to find a solution which would allow the mammals to escape without allowing the bass to get away at the same time.

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