August 23, 2008

Survey Hopes to Help Marine Species Thrive

By Jenny Haworth

INCREASING activity in the Moray Firth ranging from offshore wind farm development to boat traffic is putting Scotland's precious populations of whales and dolphins at risk, researchers claim.

Scientists are currently carrying out surveys of whales and dolphins in the waters off the North East coast in an attempt to spell out the need for greater protection for the creatures.

As well as an internationally-important population of about 130 bottlenose dolphins, other species, including minke whales, harbour porpoises, white-beaked dolphins and basking sharks have all also been spotted in the Moray Firth.

The surveys, by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), are the first such studies to be carried out to find out how many whales and dolphins currently live in the Moray Firth.

The charity's researchers hope that the survey results will help persuade the Scottish Government to use its planned Marine Bill to take action to protect the vulnerable animals.

Campaigners fear the creatures could be at risk from an increasing quantity of shipping traffic, a growing oil and gas industry, and the imminent arrival of offshore renewable energy sources, including wind farm developments.

Sarah Doleman, the head of policy for Scotland with WDCS, said: "The oil and gas industries are doing a lot at the moment with very little information.

The purpose of the surveys is to understand what is out here but also to make the government take that on board. [The animals] are facing oil spills, increased boat traffic and renewables. We need to consider all these together."

The Moray Firth's population of bottlenose dolphins is protected under EU laws in a Special Area of Conservation. However, the UK government is set to decide later this year whether to pave the way for the oil and gas industry to arrive in the area set up to protect the creatures - a move the WDCS thinks could spell disaster for the dolphins.

The 24th round of oil and gas licensing around Britain, being carried out by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, is due to be complete by March next year.

Already an 18,000-signature petition opposing the plans has been presented to the government by the WDCS. Sarah Doleman said: "We would like the oil and gas industry kept out of the protected area. It's a small but important habitat."

In addition to the threat from the oil and gas industry, campaigners are worried about the potential impact of offshore wind farms in the Moray Firth.

The firth is already home to the two first offshore wind turbines in the UK and it was earmarked as a potentially suitable location for offshore wind development earlier this year, meaning many more turbines could be built here.

If a large offshore wind farm is built in the Moray Firth, there are fears the noise and disturbances during construction, and even the sound of the turbine blades, could harm whales and dolphins.

It is thought the animals can become stressed when there is too much noise, finding it more difficult to reproduce and forage for food. In some cases animals have been known to beach themselves and die.

Doleman supports plans in the draft Scottish Marine Bill to set out a network of marine protection areas around Scotland, but says she is concerned about suggestions in the consultation document that there will be a presumption of "sustainable use" in the areas, which she thinks could see industry, fishing and shipping in fragile spots.

Instead she wants the bill to set a presumption that areas with important marine species should be left free of industry - from fishing to renewables - unless they can prove they have no impact on the underwater wildlife.

"We are very supportive of marine protection areas as long as they protect marine areas, which is what they are supposed to be about," she said.

"The draft Scottish Marine Bill is a step in the right direction but it has to have conservation at its heart, otherwise it's just enabling industry."

If adequate protection is not granted, she thinks Scotland could lose one of its most precious assets.

Already the bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth bring in millions of pounds to the economy each year as thousands of tourists flock to see them.

Once more is known about the other species living in or visiting areas around the Scottish coast, she thinks the tourist industry could grow even larger, especially as many species can be seen from land.

However, there are already fears that the bottlenose dolphins could be suffering a decline. The latest studies have suggested a slight drop in numbers, although it is very difficult to keep track of the animals as they move around.

Dolman said 130 animals was a very small population. "If just one female of reproductive age dies it could have a serious impact on the population," she explained.

Mark Simmonds, the director of science at WDCS, agrees that the animals need to be granted protection, particularly because they live in social groups that are vulnerable to interference.

Bottlenose dolphins can solve puzzles, point to objects using their bodies and pass on behaviour through generations, and Mr Simmonds even thinks they exhibit emotions such as grief.

"We are dealing with very special animals here, animals that are living in societies and animals with high intelligence, and that means we have got to conserve them," he said.

"Actions that disturb them, or separate groups, could have implications that they wouldn't have for a simpler animal, such as a fish.

"If you remove a mother [dolphin] from a calf, even if the calf survives it won't be able to learn what its mother would have taught it," Mr Simmonds said.

"If you take it out of its social group you can expect it to have a psychological impact that it wouldn't have on another species."

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