As the US starts to count the massive conservation costs of the current oil slick disaster off the coast of Louisiana , agreement by the UK government to allow two companies to begin seismic surveys in preparation for potential future oil and gas development in the Moray Firth, Scotland has been condemned by groups including the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) as being a decision based on heavily flawed environmental assessments, and one that fails to take into consideration the potential for negative long term impacts on the dolphin population that resides in what is supposed to be a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
“We are considering the best course of action to take given that the UK government is permitting seismic surveys in the only protected area for dolphins in Scotland, against the rigorous scientific requirements of European legislation”
The seismic surveys, which will create high levels of noise under the water for a number of weeks, have been approved pending a four week restricted consultation period, and look set to begin on 1st September. One of the areas outlined encroaches within the boundary of the Special Area of Conservation, which was set up under European legislation to offer protection to what is one of just two resident, and internationally important populations of bottlenose dolphins in the UK.
“WDCS is very disappointed by the decision to give the go-ahead for the seismic surveying in the protected area as it sets a very bad precedent, and potentially has very serious implications for the special dolphin population in the Moray Firth”, says Sarah Dolman, WDCS head of policy in Scotland.
“Seismic surveys cause high levels of noise under the water which at the least can be expected to disrupt the behaviour of the dolphins who are very sensitive to noise, using sound and their acute sense of hearing as their primary sense, to find food, and communicate with each other. The government has a responsibility to consider the unknown, but longer term behavioural impacts on this small population, which already faces the ongoing and cumulative effects of other threats in this small sea area such as; multiple harbour developments, increasing vessel traffic and noise from future pile driving for hundreds of wind turbines and also the future threat from oil and gas developments themselves. WDCS does not believe that the evidence exists that demonstrates, to the level required under the EU Habitats Directive, that there will not be long term or behavioural impacts to this small population of dolphins. Until such data exists, the seismic surveys should not proceed.
“We are considering the best course of action to take given that the UK government is permitting seismic surveys in the only protected area for dolphins in Scotland, against the rigorous scientific requirements of European legislation”, Dolman continues.
“The Scottish government also has to provide a license to allow the surveys to go ahead and we encourage it to reconsider carefully whether all the tests regarding disturbance of all European Protected Species can be met, as well as the advice provided by the statutory nature conservation agencies.”
If oil and gas deposits are found following the surveys then drilling is likely to continue in the area for many decades. The ongoing oil spill disaster in the US should serve as a sober reminder of the many potential consequences of similar developments in the valuable and picturesque waters of the Moray Firth.
1. Established back in 1987, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and welfare of all whales and dolphins (also known as cetaceans). In short, we are the world voice for the protection of these animals, creating pressure to bring about change.
2. In addition to assessments for the seismic surveys, the government has also released the final appropriate assessment for licensing for development of Block 17/3, the infamous block that straddles the bottlenose dolphin SAC.
The government didn’t allow the seismic surveys to proceed in 2009, as it commissioned a considerable piece of work to investigate the potential impacts of the surveys. The research reviewed the baseline data that exists, collected more systematic baseline data and conducted some modelling to assess the auditory impacts (physical damage). No work exists on the behavioural impacts that we still do not understand and that are clearly required under European and Scottish law for DECC and the Scottish Government to provide licenses.
Whilst the commissioned research didn’t answer to important questions about the behavioural impacts on the dolphins, it does provide a template as to the level of research that the government should be commissioning in all areas that it is considering offering licenses in.
The Moray Firth is also home to declining populations of harbour (or common) seals and internationally important populations of seabirds – and in 2010 we have already seen basking sharks, minke whales, orcas, Risso’s dolphins and numerous other species in the Moray Firth, who all receive very little protection.
The Scottish government is considering reviewing the existing oil spill policy for cetaceans in the Moray Firth, which is currently inadequate and would do little to protect individuals should a spill occur.
A third Appropriate Assessment is open to public consultation with a deadline of October 12, 2010.
Source: Businesswire, July 26, 2010: