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Volume 471: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

During 2007, all species of cetaceans in UK waters underwent an assessment of their favourable conservation status under article 17 of the habitats directive. We plan to publish the findings soon. The latest EU-funded studies of cetacean populations show that levels have remained steady in UK waters over the past decade.

Although I am grateful for that reply, the Under-Secretary will be aware of the growing concern about the health of cetacean populations, especially on the Cornish and south-west coast, and particularly that of the inshore bottle-nosed dolphin population, which the Cornwall Wildlife Trust recently estimated to have fallen to seven. What contribution is the Department making to understanding better the health and the cause of the decline of those stocks?

We spent around £1.6 million between 2000 and 2005 on research on cetaceans and especially on by-catch. We are expecting research from the sea mammal unit at St. Andrews university to provide information about the effectiveness of attaching pingers to fishing vessels. We expect the results of that research by April, and we will consider it and look to working in partnership with the fishing industry to ascertain whether pingers can be introduced effectively.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about the issue, as do many hon. Members. We are investing, and we want to ensure that we keep by-catches and all fatalities of these beautiful creatures to an absolute minimum. I will ensure that he is updated as we receive the results of the research and move forward on dealing with the matter.

Dolphins are beautiful, intelligent and wonderful creatures. Why should they be threatened by DEFRA’s systemic incompetence? Bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth are threatened by oil spill and seismic testing. Pingers on gill nets either do not work or are not being used. Pair trawling drowns and smashes more dolphins than any other method of fishing and it is carried out only 6 nautical miles from our coast by French boats with historical rights. There is further rumour of a delay to the marine Bill.

DEFRA’s record on whales is even worse. It issued its much publicised recruiting document to 57 countries, 42 of which were already members of the International Whaling Commission. That is why the Department had to do it again this year. Surely that is incompetence. Is it not the case that everyone wants to save dolphins and whales except the Government?

We banned pair trawling in the western channel. We do not have the ability to ban French vessels—[Interruption.] In case the hon. Gentleman does not know, we are in the common fisheries policy, to which the Conservative Government signed up. We presented our argument in Europe and we took unilateral action to ban pair trawling—that constitutes taking an effective measure. We argued our case and we were unable to persuade others, but we are taking action ourselves.

The sea mammal research unit at St. Andrews has advised us that there is no danger to bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth from ship-to-ship oil transfer. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that I should have been here. I say that we must accept the advice of one of the most revered institutions in this country. If we are given contrary advice, we will, of course, act on it.

I regret the partisan position that the hon. Gentleman takes on whaling. When I met the Japanese deputy ambassador, I said that all hon. Members were united in their condemnation of Japan on whaling. Yet the hon. Gentleman tries to take a partisan position. He is isolated. I told the deputy ambassador that Conservative and Liberal Members shared our concern. Our record is one of the best in the world.

It is not appalling. We are one of the only countries to summon ambassadors to listen to our concerns. The International Fund for Animal Welfare—IFAW—and many other non-governmental organisations have congratulated the Government on our action.