Floating factories as big as football pitches plundering our seas and killing dolphins

Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th December, 2020)

The bodies of dolphins and porpoises have washed up with alarming frequency along England’s south coast in recent days. Some bear signs of injuries from fishing nets, others are unmarked or too badly decomposed to prove the cause of death.

Last Sunday, a family enjoying the sea air on Cuckmere Haven Beach in Sussex stumbled upon the corpse of a young harbour porpoise with gashes on its body and injuries to its mouth.

Another two of these magnificent mammals were found lying on the shingle of Cooden Beach in Bexhill on Friday morning. One was partly decomposed, the other a much fresher fatality with its tail sliced off.

‘It got stuck in trawler nets,’ said Ashley Woollard, who works for the Environment Agency and found the bodies while working on sea defences. ‘They just cut them out and chuck the body away.’

He blames a group of giant factory fishing boats that were dragging mile-long nets in the choppy waters off the coast at the same time as the dolphins were found. ‘It is so upsetting because these are intelligent animals being killed by greed,’ added Mr Woollard, 49.

This fleet of ten super-trawlers – an unprecedented number for this stretch of the English Channel – has been busy scooping up thousands of tons a day of herring and mackerel.

But these fish are hunted by dolphins and porpoises as well – and conservationists blame the industrialised fishing giants for the spate of deaths as the air-breathing creatures are injured, killed or swim into the nets.

‘We see a surge in dead dolphins when the super-trawlers are here,’ said Thea Taylor, a marine biologist and co-lead of the Brighton Dolphin Project.

‘Since we started our records in autumn last year, we’ve had 17 strandings – 13 related to super-trawlers being in the waters. Studies indicate we see only ten per cent of bodies. So this means, potentially, 130 dolphins were killed in this area alone since then.’

The boats are so big I have heard a recording of coastguards calling one of them to say satellites had picked up a ‘potential pollution’ incident – only for the vessel to reply that the large ‘shadow’ detected from space was actually bycatch (species caught by mistake and thrown overboard).

Ms Taylor admits their evidence is circumstantial but the dolphin deaths fit a pattern seen around the world – of industrialised fishing fleets that damage environments and undermine the more sustainable areas of local coastal communities.

David Downey has been fishing off the south coast for three decades. He does not earn vast sums but, aged 63, still loves the thrill of hauling up nets from the deep to inspect the contents.

His main target is mackerel. As we stood in the rain on Newhaven quay, his little boat bobbing beside us, this veteran fisherman smiled as he recalled catching his first fish and the pleasure of chasing the iridescent creatures.

But in recent times, his mackerel haul has shrunk – just like the number of boats tied up at this wooden quayside, which have declined fourfold since he started. ‘The last few years have been terrible,’ he said. ‘It’s all been caught.’

Mr Downey lands fewer than half the number of boxes he landed a decade ago, often leaving him with less than £100 a day – and he blames the fleet of giant trawlers in the waters over the distant grey horizon.

His boat, with neatly folded nets in blue containers, is 21ft long and clings to the coast. The biggest factory boat – called Maartje Theodora, flying a German flag and having sailed from a Dutch port – is more than 22 times larger at 462ft long. That’s longer than a football pitch.

The fleet, which includes British, Dutch and French-flagged vessels, uses sophisticated technology to track the biggest shoals. It keeps mainly outside the 12-mile zone of UK waters – yet as Mr Downey and his colleagues say, the fish they catch are migratory so their actions impact on other humans and wildlife.

‘These are floating factories,’ said Neil Witney, 53, a fisherman for more than three decades. ‘They catch the fish, they process it, they freeze it and one even cans it onboard. It’s disgusting because they are stripping out our food sources.’

The big boats can earn £500,000 on a single trip. I have seen lorries line up at ports such as Ijmuiden in the Netherlands, ready to take up to 2,500 tons off to markets around the world, making vast sums for their owners.

Among the fleet of super-trawlers in the Channel is Dirk Dirk, a Dutch-flagged boat that changed its name and left Australian waters after being plagued by controversy over the deaths of several protected species, including dolphins and fur seals.

British conservation groups say entanglement in fishing nets is the biggest single killer of dolphins and porpoises, causing the deaths of more than 1,000 harbour porpoises, such as those found lying on the Sussex shingle last week.

Many other fatalities are in Scottish waters, but there have been a disturbing number of bodies along the south coast from Sussex to Cornwall. It is a remarkable fact that 22 of the planet’s 89 species of marine mammals are found off the UK.

Rob Deaville, project manager for the Government’s scheme to monitor strandings, said the past two years had seen the highest numbers since their programme started in 1990, although he added this could reflect rising numbers in our waters since so much remains mysterious about these aquatic mammals.

The Cornwall Wildlife Trust said 245 stranded marine mammals were found in the county last year, with close to a third of the corpses they examined – mainly common dolphins – attributed to bycatch. 

Abigail Crosby, the group’s marine conservation officer, said super-trawlers were ‘not appropriate in British waters that support not just rich fish stocks but also other intelligent life’.

Yet, disturbingly, these vessels are permitted to drop nets in sanctuaries meant to protect precious eco-systems and preserve fragile wildlife – leading to calls for the Government to take tougher action as part of its post-Brexit fishing reforms.

A Greenpeace investigation found 25 super-trawlers fished for 2,963 hours in 39 Marine Protected Areas around the UK coast last year. Maartje Theodora was among a quartet of giants that spent the most time in these supposed sanctuaries.

In the first six months of this year, super-trawlers spent 5,590 hours working these protected areas and Greenpeace expects the final tally for 2020 will be four times higher than last year. These figures have been rising steadily in recent years.

Britain has led international efforts to protect almost one-third of global waters – yet Ministers rejected a bid earlier this year to stop super-trawlers from harvesting fish in these protected areas, which cover 40 per cent of England’s seas.

‘We are not calling for these vessels to be banned but they should be prevented from entering protected and sensitive maritime areas,’ said Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK. ‘If they come across a pod of dolphins, their impact is inevitably much greater than a smaller vessel.’

One Sussex fisherman told me that he believes the super-trawlers were ‘smashing the hell out of our seas’ ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

This may be true – and certainly the Common Fisheries Policy, designed to share communal waters while protecting stocks, has been one of the EU’s most dysfunctional policies that badly impacted on the smallest British boats.

The UK negotiated a bad deal on joining the policy, then a deeply flawed system allowed one big Dutch trawler to grab 23 per cent of England’s quota.

Now the failure to find a solution to these difficult issues – of symbolic rather than significant economic importance for the UK – is playing a big part in the tortured Brexit discussions.

The fleet owners argue that their fishing takes place further offshore and often in bad weather so requires bigger boats, while insisting they target abundant stocks and follow sustainable practices. 

Gerard van Balsfoort, president of the Pelagic Freezer-Trawler Association, said the claims about the damage to dolphins relied largely on circumstantial evidence: ‘They see our trawlers and they see a dead dolphin so it must be us.’

He said that, ‘for precautionary reasons’, acoustic devices had been fitted on nets this year to deter marine mammals.

Greenpeace’s Mr McCallum argues that prohibiting super-trawlers from protected areas offers the chance of ‘a Brexit dividend’ that does not depend on trade talks. Crucially, it would show that Ministers are serious both about taking back sovereignty and protecting the environment.

Some fishing folk and campaigners urge that Britain follows Iceland and imposes a 200-mile territorial zone – though, as Mr McCallum points out, this is much more complex for our country with nine neighbouring nations rather than one.

Yet these issues of competing national interests, rapacious fishing fleets, protection of precious fish stocks and safeguarding coastal communities go far beyond Britain’s borders.

There is widespread global concern over 300 Chinese fishing boats and supporting fuel tankers in waters close to the Galapagos Islands, with their unique wildlife, to scoop up hordes of giant squid and fish.

China, the world’s biggest exporter of seafood, has 17,000 ‘distant water’ vessels compared with an EU fleet of 300 boats and a 230-strong US fleet. Having depleted their own seas, they are sailing far further afield.

Many Chinese boats are so big they grab as many fish in a few days as African or South American vessels catch in a year. Chinese crews often stretch nets between boats, a technique loathed by marine conservationists since it leads to huge bycatch.

Analysts believe Beijing heavily subsidises its fishing fleet to extend its influence and reach around the world, while also supporting an industry that employs millions of Chinese to ensure they stay loyal to the Communist regime.

Yet John Hourston, founder of Blue Planet Society, says we can hardly criticise Chinese fleets off the Galapagos Islands or Senegal when ten super-trawlers rampage through our waters.

He says that allowing these boats to keep pillaging our seas after the end of this month’s Brexit transition period would send a very bad message, adding: ‘I am not a Brexiteer but we will never have another opportunity like this to show that we will set the highest global standards.’

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