Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dolphin carcasses washed up on UK shore

An increasing number of mutilated dolphins are washing up dead on British coasts, conservationists have warned.

The corpses of 29 dolphins and porpoises have been found on the beaches of south-west England since the beginning of the year, compared with 80 for the whole of 2007.

Experts suspect that most have drowned after being caught up in fishing nets, and have criticised the Government for delays in the introduction of a sonar device designed to deter the creatures from swimming in fishing areas.

Some of the dolphins' bellies have been sliced open after death to try to make them sink. Others have had their tails amputated to free them from the nets, or have sustained deep cuts on their beaks and bodies from the fine threads. Ten recent "strandings" occurred in a 10-day period, including three on Cornwall's south coast.

But marine mammal specialists believe "bycatch" incidents, when fishermen catch them in their nets while fishing for other species, could be responsible for killing far more dolphins than those washed ashore.

Mark Simmonds, science director at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said: "It is a horrid way for these dolphins to die and you can see that when they come ashore. Fishermen are getting more adept at hiding the evidence and what we see on land is only a proportion of the problem."

Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, porpoises, dolphins and whales are protected species. Anyone convicted of ill-treating them faces a six-month prison sentence or a £5,000 fine. But the Act does not apply to bycatch.

In April 2004, the EU passed legislation requiring £60 "pingers" (sonic devices) to be fitted, but the Government has yet to force fishermen to use them.

Andy Wheeler, of the Cornish Fish Producers' Organisation, said: "Every reasonable effort is made by fishermen to avoid bycatch of dolphins. The jury is still out on whether the level of bycatch is a threat to the population."

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"