HC Deb 22 January 2003 vol 398 cc135-42WH

4 pm

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

I appreciate the opportunity to raise the extremely important issue of dolphin deaths, especially in and around Cornwall.

Last month, 31 dolphins and other cetaceans were washed up on the beaches of Devon and Cornwall. I understand that this month the figure is 70 in Cornwall and 24 in Devon. Between January and March last year, 120 dolphins and porpoises were found washed up and the scale of the problem is substantially greater even than these horrific figures suggest. Some 800 dead dolphins and porpoises were washed up on French beaches over the same period—30 times more than would normally be expected at that time of year.

The cetaceans that wash up represent a small fraction of those that are killed, as most carcases sink at sea. Although this year's winter storms have probably washed up more than usual, we know that the problem has been going on for some years and has rapidly escalated. I shall speak in a moment about a new form of fishing, pair trawling for bass, which has only been established in the last six or seven years, with which it has been linked.

There has been huge and widely expressed public concern. The Western Morning News has run an extraordinarily effective series of articles outlining the scale of the problem. As a result, large numbers of members of the public from around the country as well as from my constituency have contacted my office. That concern will increase as the number of deaths increases It reflects not just a sympathy for the dolphins, which sustain horrific injuries as a result of being caught up in fishing gear, but also the more fundamental concern that we risk wiping out our local dolphin and porpoise populations.

The best research information available from the Institute of Zoology is that the common dolphin could be extinct in the area within a decade. The small, but well-established, bottle-nosed dolphin population, closer inshore, is at risk of extinction within the next two years. That is at threat from a different type of fishery—gill netting—for which a solution is at hand. However, the Government have failed to implement any action, despite an EU agreement.

The estimated impact of pair netting is substantial. Post mortems conducted by the Institute of Zoology at London zoo established that many of the deaths have been the result of by-catch. From 1995 to 1999, more than half the dolphins for which a cause of death has been established by post mortem were killed as a result of by-catch. It is estimated that approximately one dolphin is caught in every two hauls. The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas has repeatedly identified by-catch as the biggest single threat to cetacean populations in the seas.

To gauge the scale of what is happening, an Irish study of the trial pair trawl fishery for tuna observed 30 dolphins being caught in a single haul, with 145 caught by just four pairs of trawlers in one season. During 2001 observers on UK pair trawlers, targeting the winter sea bass fishery, recorded a catch of 53 dolphins in 116 hauls. It is important to emphasise that the fishery involved in this is not a traditional fishery. It has been established only in recent years. I have written to Ministers on several occasions to express my concern that it entails severe overfishing of the bass stocks in any case, and poses a threat to the traditional local fishery, with long-lining, and the sports fishery. Increasingly the problem for cetaceans presents an even more immediate risk.

The fleet is, incidentally—although this need not be the prime motivation for the Minister in tackling the problem—almost entirely composed of French and Dutch vessels. Perhaps eight Scottish vessels take part for part of the year, fishing out of Plymouth, but they are a very small proportion of the vessels in the fishery.

Tackling the problem is ultimately a matter for European Union action. There must be European Union agreement if the problem is to be tackled overall. The good news is that the fact that there is a problem has been clearly acknowledged. Parties to the agreement on the conservation of small cetaceans of the Baltic and North seas have acknowledged the threat posed by by-catch and are committed to taking steps to reduce unacceptable by-catch.

The EU Commissioner has said that action must be taken without further delay, but there are caveats. In his letter of 28 October to the Minister, Commissioner Fischler said: If we want to succeed better than in the case of driftnets … we need to build a strong case on the basis of the best scientific and technical information … we need more specific details both on the areas in which and times for which closures of certain fisheries would be desirable and on other technical specifications for the remedial measures proposed. As soon as the scientific information becomes more complete, we intend to take swift action"— the problem being, of course, that there is some contradiction. Swift action does not happen, because the information is not complete. Commissioner Fischler is also pressing for a co-ordinated observer programme in all fisheries where by-catch is suspected a problem. The Commissioner has thus given a pledge to take action, but only where evidence has been assembled, whether that relates to closures or fishing techniques.

Andrew George (St. Ives)

My hon. Friend raises some important issues and I know that even this past weekend Looe and Polperro fishermen went out and witnessed considerable numbers of dolphins and pilot whales floating dead on the surface. Their injuries were clearly consistent with pair trawling. We know that there is a small, insignificant catch in the gill net fishery, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is not good enough to play for more time for research, when it is clear where the problem is, and that action is needed, particularly in France where most of the pair trawlers are based?

Matthew Taylor

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I sought the debate. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge what we say, because he has several times expressed concern about the issue. He is aware of it, and has pressed the Commissioner on it. All of that is welcome, but the simple fact is that both at European Union and United Kingdom level there is pressure for delay. Not enough speedy work is being done.

In addition, in some cases a concerted effort is being made to refuse to act, on grounds of lack of evidence, when people actually engaged in the business—certainly the Cornish fishermen who get blame from some people who have not looked into the matter, but who are innocent in this case—want action in a hurry. They do not believe that there is any question about what is happening. Some countries are blocking the observer programme. Only Denmark, the United Kingdom and Spain have any monitoring programmes at all. In particular, as my hon. Friend said, France has no monitoring programme at all, despite its having the largest number of such trawlers. Some member states have simply refused to accept that there is a problem.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

I would not like my hon. Friend to give the impression that the fault is all that of the European Commission. In direct discussion, Commissioner Fischler quite openly said to me that there is a desire to do something, but the Council of Fisheries Ministers has not given the permission to do so. The delay is in getting the issue on the Council of Fisheries Ministers, not so much the lack of scientific evidence to support the case that my hon. Friend makes.

Matthew Taylor

I share that concern and would go a little further. There is more that the Government could do to provide the evidence. The UK has a unique ability to answer those who would resist action on the grounds of lack of evidence. There are things that the Minister could do. He needs to act more quickly and firmly, and I have no doubt about his desire to do so.

The Department promised conservationists a by-catch response strategy as far back as June 1999. It has been four years and we still do not have that strategy. The Minister needs to explain what is happening on that and why it has been so long delayed. However, a debate about history is not terribly relevant to saving dolphins, and we cannot put off action on a wider strategy, particularly in relation to the pair trawlers.

I would like to see observers on the Scottish boats. The UK has the role of ensuring that that takes place now. There are no plans for observers until February. I would like some reassurance that the observers will be placed at the earliest date, and an explanation of why they are not there now. Without those formal data, it will more difficult to persuade other EU countries of the need for immediate action, however much we believe we know the answer.

The Department is in the middle of trials of adapted nets. Those trials have been dogged with problems. Last March, the camera fell off the adapted nets and no dolphins were recorded escaping. The trials planned for December were put back again after the adapted vessel that was hired for the trials was rammed, and it is now, I understand, in dry dock. Could the Minister explain why it is not possible to find another vessel for that work? Trials have been put back to at least March and might in practice be put back to next year, given that the fishery ended at that stage last year.

In any case, the Minister should not pin all his hopes on trials that are, frankly, highly unlikely to deliver. That fact is unfortunate, and I wish it were not so. Similar trials in New Zealand left sea lions with lethal injuries sustained while escaping the nets. They are smaller and less liable to damage than the dolphins, and I am therefore not over-optimistic. Pair trawling is a threat not only to dolphins but to bass stocks, and is not a sustainable technique compared to traditional fishing, which sustains a viable economy for the local communities that have traditionally used techniques such as long-lining, not to mention the high value of the sports fishery. Given that the Government have invested huge amounts of time, effort and money in preserving the spawning stock and the estuarial stock, it seems extraordinary to then allow such stock to be scooped up mid-water on its way to and from the spawning grounds, effectively wiping all the effort out.

I therefore put it to the Minister that he should seriously discuss with colleagues—perhaps he could tell us whether he has already done so—whether it would be more appropriate to close the fishery, at least pending the development of techniques that will avoid the problem of the dolphin by-catch and deal more clearly with the issue of bass stocks. The Cornish Fish Producers Organisation supports that option. Indeed, it makes the point that driftnets were banned for similar reasons, arguably on the basis of less evidence of their impact on dolphins than is available in relation to pair trawlers.

I want to mention a couple of other techniques about which I am concerned. First, I hope that the Minister will agree that research should be carried out by observers on industrial trawlers, which also fish midwater areas, albeit that horse mackerel do not attract dolphin to the same extent. However, dolphins are present in those waters and no research has been done into whether the trawlers pose a threat. Secondly, the European Union agreed last year that pingers should be fitted to gillnets because there is evidence to suggest that that is effective. There is a highly vulnerable bottlenose dolphin population around Cornwall, but there is not time to wait for the introduction of that change, to which the United Kingdom is committed.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I should like to point out that although we are largely talking about Cornwall, the problem also affects the Dorset coast. All the conservation bodies are 'working well together. There is enormous public awareness of the issue, especially among young children. Only last week, I delivered dozens of postcards, showing pictures of dolphins caught in nets, to Tony Blair, so it is the Government's duty to respond in the way suggested by my hon. Friend.

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. The correct mode of address is the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) or the Prime Minister.

Matthew Taylor

There is no doubt about the degree of public concern, which is shared by local fishing communities, and it is the duty of the Government to act. Even more attractive to the Minister might be the fact that he would receive enormous public support for action. We cannot rely on technology to solve the problem and we cannot wait for technology. We need to take action now. Research may continue, but we need the Minister to save the dolphins before there are none left to save.

The Minister's Department is in some financial difficulty and is having to make cuts as a result of differences of opinion between the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs over staffing levels. We have heard that large numbers of staff are likely to be departing from the Department. I trust that this issue will not be caught up in that. In particular, I hope that the dedicated team at Bristol, whose members have expertise in the area, will be retained, so that work to protect dolphins can continue.

4.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) on obtaining the debate and addressing this serious issue. As the hon. Gentleman said, I have been aware of the problem for some time and have not been idle in terms of addressing it.

Three years ago, no one in any sector of the fishing industry, including our own, would admit that there was a problem. The observer programme implemented and paid for by DEFRA identified the problem in the winter bass fishery. I understand the concerns of non-governmental organisations and acknowledge and pay tribute to campaigns, such as the one run by the Western Morning News. That effective campaign has been helpful to me because I have shown it to Commissioners and representatives from member states to demonstrate the level of public concern, as well as the alarming number of dolphins that have been found washed up on not only our coastline but the French coastline. That is the crux of the issue. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has committed funding to the sea mammal research unit, which is doing most of the study's work on identifying where the problem is and how we can best tackle it.

On the observer programme, there have been observers of every type of fishery, including pelagic, mackerel and sprats fisheries, on UK vessels. The only fishery involved in a by-catch problem was the winter bass fishery, although that is not to say that other fisheries are not causing problems, too. UK vessels have very little involvement with the winter bass fishery; it is other—and, in particular, French—vessels that are active in that fishery.

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that there is not much activity in the winter bass fishery at the moment; it tends to build up to a peak at the end of February and beginning of March. Yet large numbers of dolphins have been washing up. Many of the French pair trawlers are away in the south, in the bay of Biscay, at the moment. They tend to work their way north at this time of year. UK pair trawlers are operating offshore in the pelagic fishery. It is quite possible that other fisheries are causing the mortality rates, and it would be wrong to think that this is simply a pair trawling issue. It is about the kind of gear used, where and how it is used, how and in what fishery it is fixed, and in what conditions.

It is a mistake to think that if pair trawling were banned, the problem would be solved. It is clear that pair trawling in the bass fishery is implicated; we know that because we have some information. However, it is quite likely that the issue goes further than that. Often, comments about pair trawling are made by people who do not like pair trawling, do not do it themselves and would like the practice to end. We need a better and sounder scientific argument than that, and that means collecting information and looking for solutions.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

There is genuine concern in Cornwall and the wider west country on this issue. I understand that there is a marine mammal project that a London zoo vet, Paul Jepson, has co-ordinated. He said recently that two dolphins have had post-mortems, but we have not had the results. Could the Minister enlighten us as to the findings, in light of his request for more science?

Mr. Morley

I do not know of that particular case, but I know that there have been a great number of post-mortems. They suggest that the animals have died as a result of fishing activities, and were part of the fisheries' by-catch. I know my hon. Friend's concerns about the matter, as she has raised the issue with me a number of times.

I have raised the issue with the Commission, and with the Council of Minisers. It is not quite accurate to say that the Commissioner has to wait for the Council of Ministers to act. The Commissioner can take action under both the habitats directive and the cetacean by-catch strategy, which we have agreed in Council as part of a common fisheries policy review, and which calls for observer programmes of all member states. That strategy is agreed, so it is now a matter of the Commission pressing member states to ensure that that information is collected. To be fair to Franz Fischler, the Commissioner, he has been quite strong on the subject. He has been very supportive in response to the letters that I have sent to him. However, support is one thing; action is another, and I agree that it is needed.

In relation to the action plan and strategy on by-catch, I assure the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell that we will put that in place in the near future. Much work has been done on that strategy, both in relation to the agreement on the conservation of small cetaceans in the Baltic and North seas, and by other Departments and the devolved Administrations. The strategy is in its final stages, and we will be launching and implementing that soon. We will of course be pressing ahead on our work on acoustic devices.

Matthew Taylor

Obviously, the strategy is welcome, if indeed it is to be imminent. Can the Minister give me any idea of what "imminent" might be interpreted to mean?

Mr. Morley

I cannot at this stage, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are talking weeks.

Acoustic devices on gill nets is a United Kingdom issue.

Andrew George

I should be grateful if the Minister would clarify a matter. He said that French pair trawlers had not been fishing in the western approaches, yet the Cornwall sea fisheries committee has confirmed to me that pair trawlers have been operating offshore from the ornish coast where a large number of dolphins and pilot whales have been found floating dead on the surface and a few might have floated to the coast. Can he confirm that now or could he write to me and my colleagues and confirm that no French pair trawlers have been operating in that area recently?

Mr. Morley

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman more information. Pair trawlers may be operating, but not in the bass fishery. They may be operating, in other fisheries and some may be French. Those that are generally involved in the winter bass fishery are not in the area. It is wrong to think only of pair trawling. There are, for example, Dutch horse mackerel fisheries and industrial fisheries. We need observers on all those vessels and fisheries to see exactly what the implications are.

We have pioneered acoustic devices and we should not be slow to acknowledge that, on many of those issues, the United Kingdom leads the rest of Europe. We were the first to treat the issue of dolphin by-catch seriously and the first to identify where the problem fisheries are. We were the first to trial solutions in relation to the separator trawl and we were the first to begin to develop acoustic devices. The earlier ones had reliability problems, but the later ones are much better and will feature in our action plan.

We have had some setbacks in the trials of separator gear and no one is more frustrated with that than I am. We cannot simply use another vessel because the vessel we engaged for the experiment has had some rather expensive gear fitted, including winches and equipment for cameras and nets. It is expensive to remove those and refit them and by the time that it has been done, the vessel will be ready again. However, I have some positive news. The vessel has been repaired and is operating again, but we have chartered it for the period of the bass fishery and it has now gone to the pelagic fishery on the west of Ireland. It will be back in Cornish waters at the end of February and we hope to have the net up and running at the end of February or beginning of March, which is the peak of the winter bass fishery. That will be helpful in ascertaining whether the net works.

I know that reservations have been expressed, but some of them seem to have been motivated by people who just do not like pair trawling and believe that it is the reason for everything. I do not believe that. Pair trawling may be a problem, but we must research it carefully. The comments on the website of the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell suggest that the net does not work. The hon. Gentleman is an able Member of Parliament, but he is not psychic and we should give the net a chance to see whether it works. I know that it caused some injuries to sea lions in the New Zealand fishery, but I have spoken to the New Zealand Minister for the Environment and she told me that although there were some problems in the early stages, adjustments and changes to the net had eliminated injuries to sea lions. Sea lions are very different from dolphins.

I am not saying that the net may be the magic solution, but I certainly believe that we should try it out and see whether it works. We shall not know until it has been used in a fishery where dolphins are going into nets. We know that when it was used last year, a tope, which is a species of shark, went into the net and was ejected successfully from the escape hatch. We also know that the net catches fish, which is important if we are to persuade fishermen to use it. Some people were saying not only that the net would damage dolphins but that it would not catch a single fish. We know that that is not true, so let us see how effective it is for dolphins.

If it is not effective, I do not rule out further action and arguing for closures and restrictions. That may be necessary, but it is important first to obtain the evidence, ensure that other member states are doing their bit in collecting evidence—we need more help from other member states—and to see how we can tackle it and where it is. I assure hon. Members that I am fully committed to that. I share their frustration about what is sometimes seen as slow progress, but we are committed to dealing with the problem, to making progress and to ensuring that there is progress throughout the EU as well as the UK.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.