My Lords, research funded by the department has helped to demonstrate where particular problems involving marine mammal casualties occur in international fisheries managed under the common fisheries policy. To resolve this problem, action is required by the Commission. This is why my right honourable friend the Fisheries Minister has written to Commissioner Fischler explaining the trials on separator grids which the Sea Mammal Research Unit will be undertaking on our behalf. He has also called on the Commissioner to be ready to take action to address the problem of cetacean bycatch in EU fisheries through gear adaptations and other restrictions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Although I understand they are not compulsory, what conclusions have been drawn from the recent research project? As to the new net trials, with the season drawing to a close, when will the trials begin and when will the results be known? Similar schemes have not worked in New Zealand. Since 1st January, no fewer than 1,000 dead dolphins have been washed up on the shores of France and England. What measures have been taken to warn the public of the hazard of putrefying dolphins on the beach transmitting disease?
My Lords, as to the noble Lord's final point, I have experienced the stench of rotting dead seagulls, and the smell of putrefying dolphins would make it unlikely that anyone would go near enough to them to constitute a health hazard. It is to be hoped that immediate action would be taken by local environmental health authorities to remove anything that was considered to be a health hazard.
As to the action being taken, since 1990 the UK Government have funded a scheme to investigate, through postmortems, the reasons for strandings. Alongside this, extensive research has been undertaken into bycatch problems with dolphins. That research has demonstrated that there must be international action. Trials of separator grids in the offshore bass fishery are currently under way. I cannot tell the noble Lord exactly when the trials will be completed, but the results will inform on-going work in the lead-up to the review of the common fisheries policy.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Can we be sure that the Government are sufficiently aware that the effect of pollution and legal activity is already a severe threat to the viability of the small marine mammal populations around Europe and our own islands and that illegal actions make matters a great deal worse?
My Lords, there is no evidence that the deaths which have occurred have been due to any illegal action by fishermen. That is not to underestimate the importance of supporting the habitats regulations of 1994 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 were anyone deliberately to kill a cetacean. Fishermen are involved, in great detail and very willingly, in the current separator grids trials in the bass fishery. This will help to inform future policy. As I said, there is no evidence at all that fishermen are in any way deliberately killing cetaceans.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that British fishermen are doing nothing illegal when, in the course of their legitimate operations, they find marine creatures such as dolphins unintentionally caught and drowned in their nets, usually drift nets?
My Lords, I can confirm that to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in regard to British fishermen. We have no evidence that other fishermen are in any way acting illegally. That is why the industry is co-operating in the work that is taking place, particularly in the pelagic water levels, such as the sea bass fishing level, which appear to be the most specific and harshly identified threat to dolphins.
My Lords, will the Minister join with me in congratulating the fishermen in Looe, in Cornwall, on their strong promotion of line fishing? Does she believe that consumers buying fish receive sufficient information as to exactly what "dolphin friendly" means?
My Lords, I suppose that on one level the noble Baroness would expect me to say that the most "dolphin friendly" approach would be not to take the fish at all. I am sure that, as with other food production, consumers want up-to-date and accurate information on origin. I share the noble Baroness's support for the commitment of those fishing in the Celtic Sea in their attempts to overcome a serious problem in terms of the dolphin population.
My Lords, has the Minister taken into account research by the New Zealand Government on the use of special netting in an attempt to reduce the number of sea lions in the catch? Is such netting suitable for trials here; indeed, are we using the same type of trial nets? Some of the experiments were set up in 1990. That is a long time ago. Twelve years on, we are still catching hundreds of dolphins. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to examine the broader question of discarded fish? I understand that 25 per cent of our catch is discarded. Is it not time that the Government took action?
Yes, my Lords, we all regret that this happens. We will support any successful action introduced to prevent unnecessary slaughter of fish stocks. Research indicates that the bycatch occurs in fisheries to which other EU vessels have access. Therefore, it is important that any action taken is at EU level. Under the terms of the relevant common fisheries policy legislation, any UK requirements could apply only to UK fishermen.
In terms of the work that is being done, yes, those involved in the research project are fully aware of the research undertaken in New Zealand. The work is of two types: one deals with sonic warning, which can only be effectively used to protect dolphins in the case of nets which are static; in the case of nets at the sea bass level and the pelagic level, it is important that the grid net trials continue. My understanding is that those grid nets have been developed with the benefit of a knowledge of the work being done in New Zealand.