updated 3/17/2004 11:40:47 AM ET 2004-03-17T16:40:47

European Union nations are close to agreeing on measures designed save the lives of thousands of dolphins and porpoises caught accidentally in fishing nets.

The proposals, which would require fishermen to install acoustic “pingers” on their boats to scare away the marine mammals, could be approved next week at a meeting of fisheries ministers in Brussels, EU officials said Tuesday.

The rules could apply to fishermen in the Baltic Sea, North Sea, English Channel and other waters off northern and western Europe, although some nations are seeking exemptions for some areas and smaller boats, given the high cost of installing the equipment.

According to British estimates, the pingers could cost up to 6,000 euros ($7,400) per boat, and would need renewing every 18 months.

Fishermen see financial benefit
Despite the cost, some fishing organizations backed the proposals.

“It’s pretty much a disaster to catch a dolphin or a porpoise, you lose catch and you damage gear,” said Hamish Morrison, chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, in a telephone interview.

“Many fishermen have respect and affection for dolphins,” he added. “There’s an old legend that dolphins are the souls of drowned fishermen.”

EU funds could be used to help fishing organizations cover the costs of the acoustic equipment.

The new rules would also phase out drift nets in the Baltic Sea. Such nets, often several miles long have been banned in other waters because of the risk of entangling marine mammals.

However some Baltic nations want to delay the ban to protect their fishermen. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Estonia — which are set to join the EU in May — are especially concerned about the impact of a ban on their fleets.

Estimated 300,000 deaths yearly
Worldwide over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die unintentionally in fishermen’s hauls, according to a study released last year by American and Scottish biologists. Before it introduced its own pinger program in 2000, Denmark estimated up to 6,000 porpoises were caught annually in its waters alone.

However, although the acoustic gear has proven effective in protecting dolphins, porpoises and small whales, Morrison said the ultrasound frequency used to scare them away from nets has the opposite affect on some types of seals.

“There has to be some fine tuning of the technology, literally, because they act like a dinner gong for harp seals,” the Scottish fishermen’s’ leader said.

The EU plans would also place observers on selected boats to ensure skippers respect the rules. Failure to respect a ban on drift nets in the Mediterranean costs the lives up to 4,000 dolphins every year, the World Wildlife Fund estimates.

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