HC Deb 20 May 2003 vol 405 cc686-8W
Andrew George

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what assessment her Department has made of the impact of the use of separator grids in pair trawls in respect of(a) the incidence of unintended cetacean by-catch, (b) the unintended by-catch of other non-target species, (c) the satisfactory technical efficiency of the equipment in catching target fish and (d) the satisfaction of the fishermen who use this equipment. [114630]

Mr. Morley

Further sea trials of the exclusion grid designed to reduce common dolphin by-catch in the offshore fishery-for bass which-takes place in-the Channel were recently completed.

The scientists responsible at the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at St. Andrews University will require some weeks to produce their full report. However, I should like to give here a preliminary indication of the outcome, in recognition of the widespread interest in this matter.

The trial was undertaken by SMRU on our behalf at a cost of £100,000 and involved the chartering of a pair trawler for twelve days in March for the deployment of the grid in normal commercial fishing conditions in the SW bass fishery. It formed the second stage of testing this device at sea, the first stage having taken place in 2002. The primary aim was to develop the system further towards the point where it will fish reliably with minimal loss of fish and that any dolphins encountered will be able to escape safely through the grid and out of the net.

The twelve day charter was completed successfully, using a new camera system enabling day and night real time monitoring of the grid system in use. It was clear that the grid performance improved this year with virtually no loss of fish related to the grid system. This, encouragingly, indicates that the grid system ought to be acceptable not only to UK fishermen but to others countries involved in the pair trawl fishery.

Contrary to expectation, and in contrast to other boats fishing nearby, no dolphins were seen to approach the grid during the period of the charter. The reasons for this are presently unclear and are being considered by SMRU but it is possible that some aspect of the grid system is acting in some way as a deterrent to dolphins. However, the overall result was a zero mortality rate during the twelve day charter.

As no dolphins had been encountered during the charter period, the skippers of the vessels—and we are extremely grateful for the co-operation of the skippers and the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen's Association with all aspects of the trial—volunteered to continue using the grid accompanied for most of the time by a SMRU observer. During this extension of the trial two dead dolphins were recovered from the tunnel of the trawl after one particular haul. It is probable that one of these had become trapped in the small mesh cover net over the escape panel. This is disappointing, but the researchers are confident that recurrence of this problem can be prevented by adjustments to the escape panel, as part of the ongoing development of the system. The very significantly reduced mortality rate overall in this trial (2 animals, both caught in the same haul, over seven weeks, and these from causes that are expected to be eliminated) is encouraging when compared with previous years. Two animals died in 82 hauls over a seven week period beginning in March, a significant reduction in what is normally observed to be the case. In observations elsewhere in the fishery without the grid employed, 28 dolphin casualties were recorded in 49 hauls. All this is grounds for optimism that a viable means of minimising dolphin by-catch in this fishery can be attained very soon. A fuller analysis of the data from the trial is now being undertaken which once complete, will form a fuller report of the trial to be published as soon as possible. This will be made available on the Defra website and a copy will be placed in the Library of the House.

I am determined on the basis of these results to move forward next year from trialling these measures to actually deploying them in the fishery. I will be discussing how this can be achieved with the industry and whether other adaptations to the fishing gear, such as changes to fishing methods, could also contribute to by-catch reduction. At the same time, however, the general level of by-catch in the south west cannot continue unchecked each year and I do not rule out other options such as closure if effective by-catch reductions cannot be achieved in the short term.

We will also continue to draw attention to this work among other Member States and continue to press at the EU level for concrete proposals to widen observer coverage of fisheries implicated in by-catch and for effective measures to address this by-catch.