I live a few miles from Cardigan Bay. Whenever I can get away, I take my kayak down to the beach and launch it through the waves. Often I take a hand line with me, in the hope of catching some mackerel or pollock. On the water, sometimes five kilometres from the coast, surrounded by gannets and shearwaters, I feel closer to nature than at any other time.
Last year I was returning to shore through a lumpy sea. I was 200 metres from the beach and beginning to worry about the size of the breakers when I heard a great whoosh behind me. Sure that a wave was about to crash over my head, I ducked. But nothing happened. I turned round. Right under my paddle a hooked grey fin emerged. It disappeared. A moment later a bull bottlenose dolphin exploded from the water, almost over my head. As he curved through the air, we made eye contact. If there is one image that will stay with me for the rest of my life, it is of that sleek gentle monster, watching me with his wise little eye as he flew past my head. I have never experienced a greater thrill, even when I first saw an osprey flying up the Dyfi estuary with a flounder in its talons.
The Cardigan Bay dolphins are one of the only two substantial resident populations left in British seas. It is partly for their sake that most of the coastal waters of the bay are classified as special areas of conservation (SACs). This grants them the strictest protection available under European Union law. The purpose of SACs is to prevent "the deterioration of natural habitats ... as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated".
That looks pretty straightforward, doesn't it? The bay is strictly protected. It can't be damaged, and the dolphins and other rare marine life can't be disturbed. So why the heck has a fleet of scallop dredgers been allowed to rip it to pieces?
Until this Sunday, when the season closed, 45 boats were raking the bay, including places within the SACs, with steel hooks and chain mats. The dredges destroy everything: all the sessile life of the seabed, the fish that take refuge in the sand; the spawn they lay there, reefs, boulder fields, marine archaeology - any feature that harbours life. In some cases they penetrate the seafloor to a depth of a metre. It is ploughed, levelled and reduced to desert. It will take at least 30 years for parts of the ecosystem to recover; but the structure of the seabed is destroyed forever. The noise of the dredges pounding and grinding over the stones could scarcely be better calculated to disturb the dolphins.
The boats are not resident here. They move around the coastline trashing one habitat after another. They will fish until there is nothing left to destroy, then move to the next functioning ecosystem. If, in a few decades, the scallops here recover, they'll return to tear this place up again.
The economic damage caused by these 45 boats is far greater than the money they make. They wreck all the other fisheries; not only because they destroy the habitats and kill the juvenile fish, but also because they rip out the crab and lobster pots they cross. We deplore slash and burn farming in the rainforests for its short-termism and disproportionate destruction. But this is just as bad.
Ever since the boats arrived, local people, led by the Friends of Cardigan Bay, have been campaigning to stop this pillage. Finally, after months of dithering, in March the Countryside Council for Wales advised the regional fisheries committee to stop the dredging. The committee refused on the grounds that its powers "are not terrifically explicit" and "the precautionary principle is a vague term, and we don't really know how we define it". Any decision on the issue was postponed until 12 June - which is a fortnight after the end of the season. In 24 years of journalism I have not come across a starker example of bureaucratic cowardice.
What hold does the fishing industry have over our ministers and officials? Does it sink the bodies of their political opponents? Does it supply them with call girls and cocaine? The UK fishing sector has a turnover of £570m a year. This is less than half the size of the potato processing industry. Yet no one has the guts to defy it.
The story is the same all over the world. Next week, on 8 June, The End of the Line will be released in British cinemas. It's an excoriating, shocking film about the collapse of global fisheries, and the utter uselessness of the people who are supposed to protect them. It follows the journalist Charles Clover as he struggles to understand why no one is prepared to act. After several years of trying, he talks to the manager of Nobu restaurants, to ask why he is still selling meat from one of the most endangered species on earth, the bluefin tuna. The man refuses to take it off the menu, but says he'll warn his customers that bluefin is "environmentally challenged". But why is it left to restaurateurs to decide whether or not an endangered species should be allowed to survive?
As the film shows, the European Union's scientists recommend a bluefin catch one and a half times as big as it should be; the European commission then doubles it, and the fishermen then take twice as much as the commission allows. The Mediterranean fleet now catches one third of that sea's entire bluefin tuna population every year: at current catch rates, the species will be extinct by 2012. There's a total absence of enforcement, as even the most blatant illegal practices, like using spotter planes to find the shoals, are ignored by fisheries officials. Worse still, these pirate boats are subsidised by us. Aside from payments by national governments, fishing fleets in Europe are being given ¤3.8bn of European Union money over a period of seven years. There has been a total failure to make these payments conditional on fishing sustainably or even legally.
The European Union now recognises that its fisheries management has been a disaster. Its green paper admits that 88% of European fish stocks are overexploited and 30% have collapsed. Its quota system encourages the dumping of millions of tonnes of dead fish at sea, while its efforts to reduce the fishing fleet's capacity haven't kept pace with technology. "In several member states," the paper reports, "the cost of fishing to the public budgets exceeds the total value of the catches." Last week, European fisheries ministers agreed a radical reform of the common fisheries policy by 2012, just in time for the extinction of the bluefin tuna.
Of course, as I have seen in Cardigan Bay, it doesn't matter what they say they'll do if no one is prepared to enforce it. Our marine ecosystems will continue to be ripped apart until governments stand up to the mysterious power of the fishermen.