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'Pinger' plans to save dolphins

Dolphins can get dragged to their deaths by fishing nets.

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BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The lives of thousands of dolphins, whales and porpoises could be saved due to fishing controls to be unveiled by the European Commission on Thursday.

The plan is to extend a current ban on drift nets and introduce audible warning "pinger" devices on trawlers to save dolphins and porpoises -- known scientifically as cetaceans -- which die annually in EU waters after becoming accidentally entangled in fishing nets.

EU rules banning the use of drift nets in the Atlantic came into force in 2002.

The commission wants EU governments to extend this ban to the Baltic Sea by 2007 and limit the length of drift nets to 2.5 kilometers.

It also wants a compulsory scheme of shipboard observers to monitor accidental dolphin catches.

"This should have a significant impact on unnecessary porpoise and dolphin deaths," British European Member of Parliament Glyn Ford told the UK's Press Association.

"We are talking about drift nets the size of football pitches, trailed between two boats, scooping up everything in their way. Dolphins breathe air so if they get tangled up in nets and kept under water they drown."

The "pinger" makes a shrill persistent noise which keeps dolphins from fishing boats. Their use would be obligatory on boats in the English Channel, and the Celtic and North Seas.

Most at risk are harbor porpoises which feed mainly near the seabed. They can get caught in fixed nets anchored to the seabed, designed to catch hake, cod, sole and turbot, especially to the southwest of Britain and south of Ireland.

Studies in Denmark show that the central North Sea is another deathtrap for porpoises, with Danish trawlers picking up more than 7,300 cetaceans during the peak in 1994.

The commission's proposals will be considered by EU fisheries ministers later this year.

Ali Ross, fisheries expert from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, told CNN: "We warmly welcome the commission's proposals, but there will still be a lot more to do."

"The 'pingers' have proven to be effective but they require additional effort and maintenance, thereby adding to fishermen's workload and causing enforcement problems. There are also serious unknowns about the long term effects of 'pingers', as dolphins may become used to the sounds over time which will reduce their effectiveness," she said.

"The proposals are an important first step but there will have to be a commitment to set clear targets to reduce accidental dolphin and porpoise deaths," Ross added.

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