Muckspreader 7 sept 04 - Private EyeFor some years dismay has been mounting over the thousands of dead dolphins and porpoises regularly washed up around Britain’s south western coastline. No one doubts who is responsible for this horrific slaughter – the fishermen, mainly French, who have been exploiting the ever-rising demand for sea-bass, using a technique known as ‘pair trawling’. Two trawlers tug between them a giant net, up to a mile wide, which efficiently scoops up the bass. But it is also set at an ideal depth to snare huge quantities of dolphins and porpoises. These are then chucked overboard to pollute the beaches of Devon and Cornwall.
So great has been the outrage prompted by this ecological disaster that as long ago as 2000, our then fisheries minister Elliott Morley pledged on Newsnight that Defra had now got sufficient evidence “to take action, and we intend to do that”. There was just one little problem. Although the dolphin-massacre was taking place in UK waters, under the terms of the common fisheries policy Mr Morley no longer had the power to take the promised action himself. He needed first to convince his masters in Brussels. Whitehall was not confident that it would get that permission unless it came up with a solution which might enable the French (plus a few Danish and Scottish boats) to continue their lucrative bass fishery. So Defra came up with the idea of fitting the trawls with an ‘escape hatch’, allowing the dolphins to wriggle free. Last winter they carried out trials of their brilliant wheeze, using two pairs of Scottish trawlers, only to find that within a short time they had caught 169 dolphins which somehow hadn’t been able to find Defra’s escape panel.
This finally convinced Defra that it had no alternative but to beg Brussels to impose a ban. In July our current fisheries minister, little Ben Bradshaw, announced that he was going to “press the EU commission to implement an emergency closure of the winter bass fishery off the west country coast”. This was hailed by the Western Morning News, which had been campaigning on the issue, as “a major victory”. A local conservation group, Brixham Seawatch, likewise lauded Bradshaw’s move as “a victory for everyone who cares about these beautiful creatures”.
This month Brussels gave its answer. Fisheries commissioner Franz Fischler, in one of his last acts before retiring back to Austria, ruled that the UK government had not presented sufficient evidence to justify an end to pair-trawling. He did not of course mention that the first response to Bradshaw’s plea had been a stiff note from the French government stating that a ban on bass-fishing off the coasts of south west England would be wholly unacceptable. Mr Fischler himself had previously let it be known that he was “sympathetic to the plight of the dolphins”. But when it came to the harsh political realities which govern EU fishing policy, even he was powerless. As a commission official explained “the UK government had not provided the evidence of imminent extinction needed to justify emergency action”. In other words, so long as one marine mammal is left alive – the ‘Single European Dolphin’ – Brussels refuses to act. So the slaughter must continue. And visitors to the coves and beaches of Cornwall must learn to live with the stinking consequences.