FRENCH fishermen are dining on "large fillets" cut from the bodies of dolphins illegally caught in nets off Cornwall, conservationists claim.
The practice is becoming increasingly common in waters off the South West of England where concern is mounting over the number of dolphins and porpoises caught in fishing nets this year.
Since the beginning of January, Cornwall Wildlife Trust's Marine Strandings Network has examined and recorded 50 dead dolphins and porpoises so far. Just under half, 23, show signs of having died in fishing gear.
One common dolphin examined on the beach at Mousehole in early April showed the mark of a large mesh, mid-water trawl net from which it tried to escape.
A spokesman for Cornwall Wildlife Trust said: " A large fillet of flesh had been removed from the back - presumably for eating.
"This is a known practice on French boats and French pair trawlers were working close to the south coast at the time.
"The dolphin's tail had been cut off in the course of cutting the animal free from a winch strop which was used to lift it over the side of the boat.
"Local people were very upset to see what had been done to this beautiful animal and to hear that this was just one of many."
Cetacean researcher, Nick Tregenza, added: "UK mid-water trawlers have been pushed outside the 12 mile limit by national fishery regulations but French vessels are allowed to come in closer.
"Some research is underway by the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St. Andrew's University in Scotland they're hopeful of finding an acoustic deterrent to keep animals out of the nets but there's no EU requirement on fisheries to use such a device.
"In the present situation we believe that EU mid-water trawlers should be subject to video monitoring to assess the size of the bycatch offshore of these animals that are so highly valued by people here and across the world."
Dolphins that died in gill nets were also recorded by the network and four porpoises that had been caught almost certainly by local boats also stranded.
Nick Tregenza added: "Many people are unaware that porpoises were a common sight quite close to shore in the recent past but they suffered a major decline that was almost certainly caused by pesticide pollution of the sea from agricultural run-off on land.
"That problem has diminished substantially and if pingers were widely adopted, we could expect to see porpoises along the coast and in our estuaries again.
"In the 1800's they were commercially hunted in the Fal estuary and it would be great to see them back.
"However the data from the Trust's Marine Strandings Network indicates that accidental capture in fisheries for other species may be doubling their natural death rate and we're concerned for their welfare."
A spokesman for Cornwall Wildlife Trust added: "Cornwall Wildlife Trust is encouraged that some inshore fishermen are showing an interest in using the acoustic pingers that are known to greatly reduce the accidental capture of these animals.
"Cornwall Wildlife Trust is grateful to the public for contacting them about the strandings. "