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Cetacean Bycatches (South-West)

12.30 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): The debate is timely, because record numbers of dolphins and porpoises have been found washed up on the beaches of Devon and Cornwall since January, and also off the coast of France. I pay tribute to Lindy Hingley, the founder and co-ordinator of Brixham Seawatch, who has monitored dolphins and other creatures for the past 12 years in the western approaches. She claims that the numbers are the worst that she has known.

Since January, more than 120 cetacean carcases have been found washed up on the beaches of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. The carcases are also found in greater numbers on French beaches, where more than 800 have been washed up in the same period. That is more than 30 times the toll described as normal for this time of year. Scientists tell us that those washed up constitute only 1 per cent. of the total deaths, and that 20 to 30 animals can be caught at any one time.

The extent of deaths can also be shown by an increase in the numbers of rotting carcases found in the nets of beam trawlers and scallop dredgers. Conservationists and mammal experts blame the deaths on huge mid-water trawlers, and warn that the common dolphin could become extinct in the area within a decade. Some argue that a decade is a long time, and that the dolphins could be extinct in the area well before the end of it. In post mortems by the Institute of Zoology at London zoo, death has been proved to be a result of bycatch. The arrival of pelagic—mid-water—trawlers also coincides with the washing up of huge numbers of dead dolphins, porpoises and whales.

The dolphins are believed to be caught because of the high level of mackerel, the dolphins' favourite food, that heads up the western approaches to the English channel, and the predatory bass that feed on the mackerel. The bass are chased by nearly 15 teams of pair trawlers with nets that stretch between two vessels, that reach down to 30 fathoms and that are towed for eight hours or more. The trawlers hoover up everything that they come across, as do the more than 30 mackerel-fishing pelagic ships, which have trawls in the water for more than an hour.

Dolphins live in large family groups of up to 100. They can become bycatch victims when they engage in a feeding frenzy. The fish have been caught in the net, and the dolphin thinks, "Goody goody, here's a meal." It jumps into the net and is stuck there enjoying the food, but forgetting that it needs to pop up for air. When it tries to do so, it is too late. It cannot escape and dies an horrific death. Dolphins require oxygen. They can survive under water for a maximum of 10 minutes, but the nets stay submerged for hours. The dolphins panic when they realise that they are trapped, which shuts their air holes. They can then spend between 15 and 20 minutes trying to fight their way out of the nets, before they eventually suffocate.

Common dolphins are protected by schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and by annexes I and IV of the European Union habitats directive. It is illegal for fishermen to put a net into the water if they know that protected dolphins are near their vessels. Given the sonar equipment currently used by fishermen, deaths

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can no longer be attributed to accidents. Anyone who thinks that they are purely accidental should ask why numerous carcases have been punctured, cut up or chopped in half before being thrown overboard in the hope that they sink to the bottom of the sea. Evidence also shows that cetaceans have been speared while still alive and that they have bled to death.

Given the evidence of illegal activity, we must ask why there has been no attempt to prosecute those who perpetuate the carnage. Researchers who have studied the size of sea bass have seen evidence of dolphins being caught in large numbers. Even if that evidence cannot be used to prosecute, why can it not be used to press for action and to persuade the EU to prosecute offenders of all nationalities? Is the Minister prepared to increase researchers' powers so that they can inspect foreign boats?

The Government have considered deterrents, but they are considered ineffectual for mid-water trawls. The Government have said that they will test new nets with special top openings that allow snared dolphins to escape, and trials will take place in March and April. It is claimed that such nets have been used successfully in New Zealand, but they were used to protect sea lions. Sea lions are not dolphins; they are significantly smaller, more flexible and more able to manoeuvre their way out of nets.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): The hon. Gentleman mentioned sea lions, but he will be aware that it is not only cetaceans that are caught in British waters and elsewhere; birds, too, are found in bycatch. He may also be aware that the wildlife and countryside link marine charter, which was launched just before Christmas, has called for a national bycatch response strategy and action plan to reduce bycatch of protected species to levels that do not threaten their conservation.

Mr. Sanders : That would be welcome, but I fear that action is more urgently required in the case of dolphins.

The second point about the tests on the nets is that they will take place in March and April. The season runs from September to March, so the tests will come right at the end and will not provide a true reflection of the catches that are made when the maximum number of dolphins are in our waters.

If the trials work, however, when can we expect the nets to be in use in all vessels? That could be several years down the track. Will their use be mandatory or optional in Britain and the EU? What will the Government do if the trials fail? Frankly, I think that they are a distraction from an urgent issue.

Any action must be multinational, because targeting British boats will only move the problem, not solve it. Awareness of the issue must be raised in the EU, and member states must be persuaded that joint action is needed to tackle the situation. The EU is gathering evidence on different scientific, technical and economic aspects of the issue and is prepared to propose amendments to fisheries legislation to improve the protection of cetacean populations. By the time that happens, however, there may be no cetaceans left in our waters to protect. What steps are the Government prepared to take to raise awareness of the situation within the EU and, more importantly, to pressure it to act?

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Vessels with smaller engines cannot carry large trawls and have no problems with cetaceous bycatch, because smaller trawls have different mesh sizes. A dolphin immediately knows when it has swum into the net because of the change in water pressure, and it can get out before it runs out of air. By contrast, there is no change in water pressure with the larger trawls, so the dolphin realises that it is trapped and panics only when it needs to go up for air.

Andrew George (St. Ives): My hon. Friend makes a strong case for urgent action. He has concentrated on pair trawling. The Department has identified a problem in that sector. However, does my hon. Friend agree that although there is not yet any proof that industrial trawling for animal feed is responsible, neither has that been disproved? There has not been sufficient research to demonstrate whether cetaceans are being caught in that type of fishery.

Mr. Sanders : My hon. Friend is right. Large factory vessels, many of which are not registered in member countries of the EU, could be a significant part of the problem. Whatever action I propose within the EU would have to apply also to those countries outwith the EU where factory vessels are registered.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): Mr. Chairman, or Mr. Amess, this is an important debate and I am delighted that the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) has secured it. Whatever the Minister says, the test is Europe. Unless Europe enforces—against the French in particular, which has never been done in the past—we are crying in the wind. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the kernel of the problem?

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): May I tell the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) that I am content to be called by my own name, so long as it is not abusive.

Mr. Sanders : My neighbour, the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), is right. There is a problem in France, which has seen far more bycatch on its beaches than we have, in that the French Government do not recognise that there is a problem. My hon. Friends and I are approaching the French ambassador to see whether we can have a meeting. We shall let the hon. Gentleman know if one occurs, and I hope that he will be able to accompany us in order, through the ambassador, to put the case directly to the French Government. Would the Minister support a ban on pelagic vessels of over 500 horse power, including pelagic pair trawlers, if necessary? Such a ban would need to be introduced at EU level, as the boats mainly come from other parts of Europe, and it would solve the problem overnight.

The danger is that nobody knows how many dolphins are left. If we do not take action quickly, there might be none. Those of us who have the advantage of living in the south-west know the dolphin as a friend that comes to visit us in the late summer and through the winter. I represent an area that includes one of the most beautiful natural bays in the world, and I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree that the sight of dolphins off

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Brixham, Paignton and Torquay is a pleasure for those who live there and those who visit the area. The tragedy is that if we do not act now, we may have had our last visit from those magnificent creatures—and we never had a chance to say goodbye.

12.44 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher) : I am sorry that I am not the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who has a distinguished record in this area and has been involved in a lot of the negotiations mentioned by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). If he were not, unfortunately, out of the country, he would have responded to the debate, and he will certainly take careful note of what has been said.

The hon. Gentleman, and other hon. Members who used the debate for lengthy and well-prepared interventions, rightly drew attention to the concern felt in their constituencies about the large number of dolphins being washed up on the beaches in the south-west, and I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has corresponded at some length with my hon. Friend on the subject. I need not stress that we share those concerns, but if we are to find solutions to the problem, we need to know exactly what is causing it. The hon. Gentleman is entirely convinced of his arguments, and I understand their force. Post mortems have shown that the majority of cetacean strandings are caused by fishing activity.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the work of the sea mammal research unit—the SMRU—at St. Andrew's university. That unit has done a good deal of work for my Department, and it recently isolated the fact that the dolphin casualties attributable to fishing in the western channel seem to be down to the offshore bass fishery. There does not seem to be much doubt about that. The SMRU has had observers on vessels fishing for anchovy, blue whiting, herring, mackerel, pilchard, sprats and bass, but dolphin casualties have been observed only in the bass fishery. That research has shown a zero response for all the others, but there were more than 50 cases in respect of bass. The evidence appears to be convincing.

Andrew George : Would the Minister be prepared to read out more of the figures? What I have seen of the Department's work suggests that many more observations have been made of bass than of other fisheries. To what extent has the Department investigated the operations of the industrial trawling sector?

Mr. Meacher : We have certainly been looking at the allegations made about industrial fishing, and I shall come to that point later.

The hon. Member for Torbay referred also to mackerel, but the overwhelming evidence is that it is the offshore bass fishery. The bass fishery is not unique to British vessels. This year, only four United Kingdom vessels, all from Scotland, have taken part in that fishery, while 40 French vessels have worked in it.

The hon. Gentleman made the specific point that the huge bulk of boats working in the Channel are from other member states. For that reason, they are outside

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the jurisdiction of UK wildlife legislation. That is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has approached the Commission. The route to action is through the Community.

The question was raised whether industrial fishing was responsible for cetacean fatalities. In the Channel, Danish and other vessels fishing for horse mackerel are called industrial, even though some of the catch is for the table, and allegations have been made this year that the vessels are covering dolphins with other fish in their fish room or their nets. The SMRU's monitoring work has not included those vessels. Inspection of those vessels by fishery protection officers did not confirm those allegations. The fishery is international, and, under the rules of the common fisheries policy, we cannot require French vessels to stop working it. We are keen to do something. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has pursued the matter with the EU Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler and Mr. Glavany, who, until recently, was the French Minister. He has written explaining the hard evidence that we have, which is compelling, and urging the Commission to set up an observer programme to broaden the information available. He has stressed to the Commission that urgent EU action will soon be needed, and he has also made those remarks directly to the French Minister.

I am glad to report that Commissioner Fischler sent an encouraging reply, which indicates that he shares the concern of people in the UK and agrees on the need to act at Community level where there are problems. That is helpful.

On the subject of inspecting foreign boats, which the hon. Gentleman raised, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has called for a co-ordinated observer programme because we currently have no powers to place observers on foreign vessels. Again, we must make sure that that is undertaken via the Commission.

Mr. Steen : As I see the Minister is running short of paper, perhaps I could put a question to him.

Mr. Meacher : I am not; but the hon. Gentleman can go on.

Mr. Steen : Am I right in concluding that the Government are on the side of those who want to save the dolphin and do not want the massacre of those animals to continue? If that is the case and there is an international problem, am I right in presuming that the Minister believes that the answer can be found only through the European Commission? Furthermore, will he tell us—I am sure that the hon. Member for Torbay would appreciate it as much as I would—the timetable for making progress, and say whether there is anything that we modest Back Benchers can do to accelerate the process?

Mr. Meacher : Of course we are on the side of those who want to stop the fatalities. Quite apart from the popularity of the dolphin, we would want to stop the unnecessary destruction of any mammal. We are taking action, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to know how quickly action will be taken at EU level, I should tell him that I have spent five years trying to discover the answer to that question in relation to all sorts of matters.

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My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is a redoubtable and veteran campaigner on these matters, and we must rely on him to push for action. We are certainly not dragging our feet and want to see action this year. Indeed, what I shall say about the trials will be some indication of that.

Having discovered where the main problem lies—there is no difference between us on that—we have set about trying to find a practical solution. The expert advice is that the inclusion of separator grids in fishing nets may be the answer. That adaptation allows the dolphins that swim into nets to escape. With the full co-operation of UK skippers—we must give them credit for this—the adapted gear will be tested at sea under commercial conditions during March and April. The hon. Member for Torbay said that those are not necessarily the best times for testing the gear. There is no reason why testing should not continue, but we need to get on with it. After that, the bass fishery for this season will have come to its natural end.

The hon. Member for Torbay asked me about the mackerel fishery. SMRU research points to the bass fishery, rather than the mackerel fishery, although I note what the hon. Gentleman said. We believe that separator trawls are the answer. They may be equally effective for mackerel nets, and that can be tested.

Mr. Sanders : The problem with separator trawls is that the catch itself may escape. If the dolphin cannot escape but the fish are escaping, that is no help to the fishermen. I come back to the fact that the dolphin is different from the sea lion. Contingency plans need to be in place in case the trials fail—otherwise, it could be too late.

Mr. Meacher : I take both those points. Of course, the fish may escape. However, the scheme is being carried out with the co-operation of United Kingdom skippers and it is of credit to them that they are prepared to do the trials and test the results. Naturally, it would be a serious problem if the method had serious consequences in terms of loss of the main catch.

The work on separator grids is important, as it offers the possibility of a solution that will protect dolphins and—if the tests work and the fishermen are prepared to use the method—allow them to continue in pursuing the bass fishery. However, we must wait to see what happens.

Some have said that separator grids are not the answer. The hon. Gentleman referred to New Zealand fisheries tests with sea lions. The truth is that we cannot know whether the method works until it has been tried and tested under the commercial conditions that exist in the relevant fisheries. We know that separator grids work in some Norwegian fisheries and have been tried with sea lions. I agree that the sea lion is a mammal of different dimensions from the dolphin, for example. We need to try out the gear and tune it to discover whether it works in our conditions.

One way or another, an urgent solution is needed. There is every reason to suspect that the trial work on separator grids will succeed in developing a version that will work effectively in our conditions but, if they are not successful, nothing should be ruled out—including fisheries closures.

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An allegation was made that fishermen are illegally killing marine mammals. It is not an offence to cause the death of a cetacean as an incidental result of a lawful activity, such as fishing, or to kill a seal to protect catches of fish or fishing gear. I do not believe that fishermen are deliberately killing cetaceans, and I do not think that hon. Members have suggested that. It is significant that fishermen are co-operating in current research into mitigation methods.

Mr. Sanders : I was merely saying that, with modern sonar equipment, fishermen could not claim that they did not know that they might possibly catch dolphins. In that sense, they know when they are catching dolphins, but why do some fishermen then feel it necessary to cut them up and hide the evidence?

Mr. Meacher : I take that point, but I thought that the suggestion was made that fishermen were killing cetaceans deliberately. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that fishermen should be aware that that could be the result, and take account of that fact.

The point was not raised, but I want to say something about porpoises, because they present different problems from dolphins. Porpoises concentrate on feeding on the sea bed and get caught up not by the trawls used for bass but in fixed gear used for hake and other species that live on and near the bottom. Again, the sea mammal research unit has done considerable work on that topic for my Department, with the fullest co-operation of the fishermen—indeed, it could not have been done without their co-operation. The most likely solution seems to lie in attaching pingers to the headlines of the nets. We are now in the final stages of working with pingers on Celtic sea nets. We have obtained a pattern of pinger that is much more fisherman-friendly. Once the detailed application of that gear has been ironed out, we will be better able to argue for the Commission requiring the application of that technology to the fleets of all member states working in fixed-net fisheries.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Torbay for raising this important issue. Like him, we want to see urgent action. I am sure that my hon. Friend the fisheries Minister will continue to co-operate closely with him to reach the result that we all want: the preservation of cetaceans from accidental and unintended bycatch.

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