Save the Whale is back. The original buccaneering green campaign on the high seas, when environmentalists in small boats successfully highlighted slaughter-by-harpoon and changed world opinion, is about to be repeated - but this time the focus is on the whales' smaller cousins, dolphins and porpoises.
They are being killed in such numbers in the nets of fishing boats in the Western Approaches to the Channel, conservationists believe, that some species are in danger of being wiped out, and the new campaign seeks to force European governments to take action to stop it.
The campaign is being led by the people who invented non-violent but spectacular confrontation at sea, Greenpeace, in alliance with Britain's Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS).
Today the latest and biggest addition to the Greenpeace fleet, the Esperanza , a 2,000-tonne former ocean-going fireship, sets sail from London with a multinational complement of 35 crew and campaigners, to meet the fishing fleets from half a dozen EU countries thought to be responsible for an annual slaughter of small cetaceans - dolphins and porpoises - now running into thousands.
In their seven-week voyage they will seek to put observers on fishing boats, in particular those carrying out what is known as pelagic trawling - towing vast mid-water nets, some with mouths 200 metres wide and 60 metres high, which are thought to be responsible for the worst of the dolphin killings.
If, as seems likely, fishing crews refuse observers, the campaigners intend to monitor closely the fishing operations themselves, videoing the trapped dolphins and porpoises and using underwater hydrophones to record them caught in the nets. They will be using small inflatables in the January Atlantic - but this is the time to go, when dolphin casualties are worst.
The object is to bring the true scale and nature of the killing to public attention, and to force the EU to introduce measures in the fishing fleets to mitigate the growing number of marine mammal deaths.
No one is saying that fishermen are targeting dolphins. The problem is bycatch - the incidental capture of non-target species - which is a growing concern in fisheries the world over, because birds, seals, turtles, sharks and other fish species are all affected. One recent estimate was that 23 per cent of the global fisheries catch was thrown back into the sea dead and wasted.
Yesterday the WDCS published a detailed report on cetacean bycatch in the north-east Atlantic, claiming that the total annual mortality figure is "in the thousands, possibly many thousands, and is probably unsustainable".
Accurate information is very difficult to obtain, but in recent years there has been a growing number of dolphins and porpoises washed up dead on the western coasts of Britain and France in January and February, showing clear signs of having been caught in nets. These hundreds of land-stranded animals are assumed to be only a small fraction of those actually killed.
Pelagic fishing for sea bass is thought to be one of the worst offenders, with the large French fleet of fifty-plus boats leading the way, but pelagic trawling is also carried out by boats from Spain, Ireland, the Netherland, Denmark and Britain.
Ali Ross, the WDCS fisheries consultant and author of the report, said that the little observation at sea that had been possible had shown high levels of cetacean deaths. With two UK fishing boats observed pair-trawling (towing the net together) in 2001, 53 dolphins were killed in 116 hauls of the net; with two Irish boats in 1999, 145 dolphins were killed in 313 hauls, with 30 animals being killed by one single haul of the net. There are hundreds of boats in the whole EU fleet.
The principal victims are common dolphins, but bottlenose dolphins, striped dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and long-finned pilot whales are also caught, she said. "They all suffer traumatic deaths, and in the process sustain horrible injuries, such as broken beaks, torn fins, internal bruising and lacerations, which makes this an animal welfare problem as much as a conservation one," said Ms Ross.
There was a proposed EU regulation on cetacean bycatch, but it did not go nearly far enough, she said, and a proper management framework for bycatch reduction needed to be put into place as soon as possible, with the object of reducing it to zero.
Some mitigation measures are already available, such as electronic "pingers" which alert marine mammals to the presence of nets, but they are not widely used. Britain has developed a special "dolphin gate" which would prevent the animals swimming far up the nets, but it is only at the trials stage.
Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace, said the group had no interest in driving fishing communities to ruin or preventing people earning a sustainable livelihood. "But we need a policy that protects the riches of the ocean as well as the economic interests of fishermen," he said.
"In the waters around Britain and France thousands of dolphins are dragged to their deaths in nets every year. We believe the UK has a legal and moral obligation to confront this issue with a sense of urgency. It's been talked about for long enough, but no action has been taken.
"These are some of the last large wild mammals in Europe, and failure to protect them is as morally irresponsible as failure to protect elephants, tigers or any of the other charismatic great beasts.
"All the scientific evidence shows that there is an ecological catastrophe taking place on our doorstep, and enough is enough."
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