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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 11:24 GMT
Fishing for a solution
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Prince Charles at Taiaroa Heads Albatross Colony  in New Zealand
Prince Charles is fighting to save the albatross
Modern fishing methods have come under repeated attack this week over the impact they have on marine and bird life, even drawing royalty into the row. So is there an environmentally-friendly way to catch a fish?

Prince Charles said the plight of the endangered albatross is the "ultimate test" of whether or not the human race is serious about conservation, on a visit to a bird colony in New Zealand.

The legendary protector of seafarers is fighting for survival because tens of thousands drown every year when looking for food and getting snared on longline fishing hooks. Some longlines are 80 miles long and carry tens of thousands of baited hooks.

Other bird and marine life face the same fate as most modern fishing methods allow little refuge, sweeping up everything in their path. The indiscriminate destruction carried out underwater is also resulting in certain fish stocks facing collapse.

Huge waste

One of the worse culprits is beam trawling. It involves dragging heavy trawling gear over the seabed, destroying many of the species which live there. They include shellfish, worms and starfish - not important commercially, but an essential part of the food chain for fish.

And the waste is huge. In the North Sea it takes 16lbs of marine animals to produce just 1lb of sole and it is much the same trawling for prawns in tropical waters, says Bernadette Clarke, Fisheries Officer with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

But while there are more sensitive ways of fishing, there is no way you can totally protect against environmental damage, she says.

Even when protective restrictions are brought in they have knock-on effects
Bernadette Clarke
Marine Conservation Society

"There are more selective methods, but ultimately they all come down to how responsible the person doing the fishing is. Hand lines might have less of an impact but if the person is trampling over coral to get to the fish, damage is still being done.

"These methods are also more labour intensive and less efficient and, unfortunately, we live in a modern age where efficiency and cost-effectiveness dominate. The chances of them being adopted on a wide scale are small.

"Even when protective restrictions are brought in they have knock-on effects. Fishing communities often target other fish, putting pressure on a different species and we end up needing more restrictions."

However, simple measures can reduce the bycatch of seabirds without any negative effect on fish catches, according to BirdLife International. Indeed, fish catches actually increase in some cases.

With albatrosses, measures include weighting lines so they sink quickly and do not entice birds and setting off bird-scaring lines, made up of multi-coloured streamers. Both are cheap and easy to do.

'Wrongly blamed'

But although this message seems simple enough, it is a huge task to communicate it effectively to the diverse community of fishermen - from many different countries and cultures - that practise longline fishing, says BirdLife International.

Some fishermen have tried to adopt more environmentally-friendly methods and often feel they are wrongly blamed for the deaths of some marine life.

The Cornwall Sea Fisheries and the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation (CFPO) recently introduced a voluntary code of practice to minimise dolphin and porpoise bycatch in gill nets.

Under the code, if cetaceans are seen in areas where fishing is taking place, fishermen will pull their nets and warn other boats in the area. If a dolphin or porpoise does appear among the catch, fishermen will in those circumstances stop fishing and alert other boats.

"As far as we are aware, the co-operation shown over this issue is a first and something that these fishermen should feel justifiably proud of. This has to be the way forward," said a spokesman.




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