Alternative to nets

April 9, 1999

Last year, after failing to get EU-wide agreement on action to cut dolphin deaths, the UK took unilateral action to phase out its own tuna fishing fleet. Drift-netting used to catch tuna has been blamed for killing dolphins. But other methods are just as lethal.

Press reports that Portuguese tuna fishing crews were culling dolphins have given the Azores fishing industry a bad name.

But oceanographers at the University of the Azores, who have been studying tuna fishing since 1997, have concluded that traditional techniques are essentially dolphin-friendly.

Project leader Ricardo Ferrio Santos and coordinator Rogerio Feio from the department of oceanography and fishing on Faial island have trained a team of ten observers who accompany the boats from May to November to make sure no dolphins are among the catches.

They also gather information on the amount of fish caught and the size of other marine populations including birds, turtles and whales.

Tuna shoals are detected by watching out for seabirds that feed off the same kind of fish as tuna and dolphins.

The fleet uses pole and line rather than nets. This highly selective technique means that other species caught by accident are reduced to practically nil, and Dr Feio believes that the threat to dolphins is therefore minimal.

He sees this traditional method as far more ecological than the more random technique used elsewhere of catching tuna with nets.

"It is a very appropriate way of maintaining fish stocks and sustaining the regional economy," he said. "It also ensures that we stay within the permitted tuna quotas."

Ensuring a dolphin-friendly stamp of approval for their tuna is essential for the Azores fishermen as consumer awareness of the issue has grown in recent years. The United States will no longer allow imports that do not have dolphin-safe status as granted by the US charity Earth Island Institute.

Dr Feio said the programme had been well received by local fishermen as "they realise how important it is to keep markets open for their products".

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