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Dolphins and Other Cetaceans Protection

12.31 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I beg to move,

Pair trawling for bass, in which two boats tow huge nets, causes hundreds of cetacean deaths: dolphins, porpoises and small whales. Industrial trawling for bass that is what pair trawling is is a relatively new fishery. With no quota for bass and no limit on the number of boats that can trawl UK waters at any time, the fishery has attracted boats from across Europe. At the same time, a major marketing campaign has been undertaken to create demand for the fish and increase its price.

The sea bass dish featured in newspaper magazines, or prepared in front of the camera by the latest TV celebrity chef, may be part of a co-ordinated strategy to create a new market for a fish that, in the past, while not absent from the menus of top restaurants, was never as widely available and demanded as it is today. The side effect of such artificial demand has been witnessed on the beaches of north-west France and south-west England: hundreds of cetacean carcasses washed up on the shore.

Various cetacean species are known to die through entanglement in fishing gear. Small cetaceans, such as harbour porpoises and common dolphins, become entangled in bottom-set gill nets. Common dolphins are known to die in towed trawl nets, which may also capture species such as white-sided dolphins and pilot whales. Larger whales, such as the minke whale, occasionally become entangled in discarded nets or in the float ropes of lobster pots, sustaining injuries or long-term entanglement that may cause death through disease or infection.

Under the habitats directive, the UK has a responsibility to monitor incidental cetacean mortality wherever it is believed that such mortality could affect their populations and to take remedial action if a problem is discovered. Well, we have a problem. Sea bass, like the common dolphin, feed on mackerel. They chase the shoals during the season from Biscay to the Isle of Wight. Trawlers hunting bass drop their nets into the water and scoop up everything in sight. The dolphin chase the mackerel into the bottom of the trawl to feast, not noticing the change in water pressure. When they need to come up for air, they cannot. They are trapped. They suffocate and die, just as a human would if caught in such a net without an oxygen tank.

The dolphin fights its captivity, often damaging itself on the nets in a desperate attempt to escape. The rips and marks on the bodies of washed-up carcases are evidence of the horrific final minutes of one of humankind's closest relatives. Apart from the shocking sight that greets those who come across the dead mammals that litter our shoreline, the significant cost of disposal falls on coastal local authorities.

What we see washed up on our shores and across the channel is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the cetaceans eventually sink to the bottom of the sea when they are thrown back by the pair trawlers. Some fishermen, recognising that the dolphin is a protected

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species, cut up the remains of the by-catch in the hope that it will never be discovered. However, winds and currents uncover the evidence by washing up some carcases and body parts, which can then be subjected to post mortem examination before disposal.

There is huge mortality among common dolphin in winter fisheries each year, and although the specific fisheries causing the problem remain a matter for debate for the Government, local fishermen and conservation groups know who is to blame the sea bass pair trawlers. The only evidence of the scale of the problem currently comes from the increasing number of carcases washing up on coastlines that show evidence of trawl injuries. Some 65 per cent. of those subjected to post mortems under Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs contract were clearly by-catch victims, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. As a welfare organisation, the RSPCA believes that any level of cetacean by-catch carries an associated level of animal suffering that must be regarded as unacceptable.

Recorded by-catch of cetaceans in Cornwall and Devon has risen steeply since 1970. Although some of the increase may be attributed to improved reporting, the very marked shift from a roughly even seasonal distribution before 1970 to a strong predominance of winter stranding, especially in common dolphin, demonstrates another cause. The first notable peak in dolphin strandings in the UK was recorded in 1992, when 118 dolphin carcases came ashore in Cornwall and Devon in the first three months of the year. Post mortem examinations revealed that most of the animals had died as a result of incidental capture in fisheries. The pattern of injuries on the animals led to the conclusion that they had died in pelagic fisheries.

The first significant by-catch was found in the south-west in 1997, a date that coincides with the introduction of European Union fishing quotas for mackerel and pilchard. After 1997, fisheries were unable to fish for these types of fish, so instead swapped to fishing for sea bass. As of yesterday, 200 carcases had been found on the beaches of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Hampshire so far this year. The figures already exceed last year's total. It has taken seven years to persuade the Government that there just might be a problem. In response, a number of proposals to prevent by-catch are being funded.

Pingers, tiny acoustic alarms that are attached at intervals along a fixed fishing net to warn cetaceans of the net's presence, are designed to produce sound outside the normal hearing range of the target fish. Studies have shown that they can deter as a short-term measure, but we must ask whether the equipment is robust enough to survive constant pounding in a tough fishery at sea. Who will check, and how often, that the batteries are still working? Moreover, pingers have been developed only for set gill net fisheries. They will not work on mobile pelagic trawls.

Separator grids in fishing nets are being tested. In theory, they allow dolphin that swim into the nets to escape, but without expensive video monitoring equipment and someone to watch the screen, how will anyone on board know they are working? There is another more basic problem, which is that the catch

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itself may escape. If the dolphin cannot escape but the fish are escaping, that is no help to the fishermen or the dolphin.

The European Commission has prepared a draft regulation that calls for compulsory observer monitoring of fisheries with a suspected cetacean by-catch problem. Independent observers could gather information on the extent of the problem and see whether the speed of the trawl, the time of the trawl or another variable makes a difference to the level of by-catch. How many observers will be needed to monitor the increasing number of vessels engaged in that fishery, and to do so 24 hours a day, and what, if anything, can they do if cetaceans are caught?

The problem is that the trials are taking place on only a couple of UK vessels, which represent only a small proportion of the British pair trawl fleet, which in turn is one of the smallest in Europe. They represent, perhaps, 1 per cent. of pair-trawling capacity currently at work hunting for sea bass. Even if all those initiatives prove 100 per cent. successful, thousands of cetaceans will continue to be slaughtered unnecessarily.

Dolphin used to be a common sight around the coast of the west country, but they cannot sustain the annual carnage for much longer. The bottle-nosed dolphin has almost disappeared, and we do not want the common or the white-sided dolphin to follow it.

There is only one way for the House to test the claims of the pair trawlers that they are not to blame for the by-catch, and that is to ban this method of fishing for sea bass. If after a year there is no reduction in the number of washed-up carcases on our beaches, we will know that the pair trawlers are not to blame, and that the trials of nets, pingers and observers are a waste of time as well.

Time is running out, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Adrian Sanders, Andrew George, Mr. Paul Tyler, Matthew Taylor, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. Anthony Steen, Richard Younger-Ross and Nick Harvey.

Dolphins and Other Cetaceans Protection

Mr. Adrian Sanders accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for the protection of dolphins and to prohibit pair trawling for sea bass in UK waters: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed [Bill 87].

31 Mar 2004 : Column 1598

Points of Order

12.42 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Prime Minister's questions today we reached only Question 5 on the Order Paper. Furthermore, the exchange between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister took 14 minutes, which is almost half the allotted time. In the interests of Back Benchers, do you think that that is fair, and what steps can you take to ensure that that exchange is limited and that other Members of the House, beyond the Leader of the Opposition, have an opportunity to question the Prime Minister?

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to reply, he may not need to make a further point of order.

Until today, I have been lucky, because Back Benchers have done well in the recent past. In fact, I think that I have managed to reach Question 12 on the Order Paper. In fairness to the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, the questions relating to immigration were highly technical, so they took up time. I am conscious of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and there will be occasions on which the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are longer than usual, but I will not encourage that, and rather the opposite, I hope.

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