HL Deb 25 March 2003 vol 646 cc648-50

2.51 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to reduce the number of dolphins and other cetaceans and aquatic birds illegally caught and killed during fishing operations in United Kingdom-controlled waters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, my colleague, Elliot Morley, the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, has recently launched a consultation exercise on a UK strategy for the reduction of cetacean bycatch. Of course, other member states are involved in cetacean bycatch in UK waters and, therefore, reduction measures for bycatch require EU action. Commissioner Fischler has been encouraging in his response, but we shall continue to press the matter. Bycatch of aquatic birds is not understood to be a significant problem in UK waters.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is he aware that more than 300 dolphins, whose post mortems proved that they died in terrible agony, have been washed up on the beaches of south-west England? Does he also understand that people are very frustrated by the fact that more consultations seem to be necessary when the facts are so well known? For example, nets have been banned in American waters for six years. The aquatic birds to which I referred were albatrosses in the Falklands.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, with regard to the last point, we are about to ratify an agreement on the conservation of albatrosses and petrels in the South Atlantic and elsewhere. On the question of dolphins and cetaceans in UK and nearby waters, we recognise that there are serious problems. They are not caused only by UK vessels, and we recognise that there is a need to find technical solutions to some of them. That is why we are considering the fitting of pingers to fixed nets and are looking at the various ways that we can modify the mobile gear used by trawlers. We have funded the SMRU, the Sea Mammal Research Unit, which is examining possible adaptations of trawling gear. Part of the consultation exercise is to consider the way that that could be adopted.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the North Sea drift-net fishery is using nylon monofilament gill-nets? Not only are they taking the salmon which are going north to their spawning rivers; they are also taking dolphins because the gill-nets are so strong. Why do we not stop or ban the gill-net?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I believe my noble friend knows, EU standards place limitations on the size of the grid but, frankly, there needs to be a rather large mesh in order to avoid catching dolphins. Therefore, it is necessary that we adapt the gear either to distract or repel the dolphins or to ensure that they can escape. We are considering research on grid separators to go within the nets so that dolphins and other cetaceans can escape from them.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, as has been pointed out, dolphins are caught accidentally in drift-nets, which are intended to catch fish such as tuna. Is the noble Lord aware that dolphins drown because they cannot return to the surface to breathe?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. That is why we are looking either to provide within the net structure a pinger, which sends a signal to the dolphin with the intention of repelling it and stopping it entering the net in the first place or, in the case of non-fixed nets, the ability to provide within the nets a way for dolphins to get out. That is precisely the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, referred.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, in its press release, the Minister's department states that pingers may be part-funded. Can he assure me that the Government are considering helping fishermen in UK waters to fit the pingers, which will help to solve the problem, as I believe Denmark has done for its fishermen?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is but one issue that the consultation exercise will address. If any help is available, it will apply to UK fishermen but, of course, there are other fishermen in UK waters.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can the Minister say anything about the dolphins currently being used to detect mines in the Gulf?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret to say that, so far as I am aware, that is classified information.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, is the Minister disappointed that, for the second time today in response to Questions, we are being told of a delay? There was a delay of five years in connection with the first Question and a timescale delay on this very important Question, as the Minister acknowledged. Can he tell the House who is carrying out the research, how quickly they will report and how soon we shall see some action?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the consultation exercise will be completed within the normal three-month period, but the research has already started and most of it will be completed by this time next year. However, I do not believe that there is a delay in terms of decisions being made on the basis of the information that we have received over the past year. Indeed, we have started the process of discussing this matter at EU level. Ultimately, whatever regulations apply to minimise damage to dolphins within UK waters need also to apply to vessels other than British ones.

Lord Elton

My Lords, do I deduce from the last answer and from the one given a moment ago to the Liberal Democrat Benches that the Government have no writ running over the use of nets in British waters by non-British trawlers? Do we understand that the Government can control only what British trawlers fish with in British waters and that they have no say over what, for example, Spanish trawlers use?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords. That is the wrong implication. The question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was whether we would provide funding for pingers, which send a signal to dolphins to avoid the nets altogether but apply only to fixed nets. That would be a UK decision. The regulations on mesh size are EU regulations. They should be enforced on all EU and other vessels fishing in EU waters.