Plans to protect endangered porpoises around the Scottish coast have been blocked by the Scottish Government to help clear the way for new offshore wind farms, according to internal government emails seen by the Sunday Herald.
Senior wildlife advisors have privately accused the government’s Marine Scotland directorate of displaying “unwarranted aggression” and being “untruthful” about its agenda. They also warn that Scottish ministers are trying “to bend the law as far as possible” and could end up being fined for breaking European environmental rules.
Marine Scotland has delayed four proposed conservation areas for harbour porpoises by raising objections to the science. But 48 pages of detailed email exchanges reveal that officials were worried about “a significant risk” that a major wind farm planned for the Moray Firth could fail.
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Environmental groups have attacked the Scottish Government for allowing the political drive for wind farms to overrule the science of saving wildlife. It is “very disappointing” that this has caused Scotland to fall behind the rest of the UK on protecting harbour porpoises, they say.
In October 2014, the European Commission warned the UK government that it would be taken to court for failing to designate special areas of conservation for harbour porpoises. This was seriously compromising moves to protect the species, the commission said.
In response UK governments began a designation process that ended last week with proposals for five harbour porpoise conservation areas around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But four other areas planned for Scottish coastal waters were dropped.
One of the areas that was abandoned was in the Moray Firth, around and to the north of Fraserburgh. This is where two huge offshore wind farms backed by the Scottish Government are planned, with over 300 turbines.
Other proposed conservation areas that were shelved were in the Minch between the Isle of Lewis and the coast around Ullapool, and around the islands of Mull, Jura and Islay. A fourth area has been sliced in half, with the section next to Northern Ireland retained but the bit off the southern coast of Galloway expunged.
All the porpoise areas were proposed by the UK Joint Natural Conservation Committee (JNCC), which works with devolved wildlife agencies, including Scottish Natural Heritage. But emails from April to November 2015 released by JNCC disclose that the four Scottish areas were fiercely opposed by Marine Scotland.
An initial email from a Marine Scotland scientist pointed out that the proposed designations would “have implications” for wind farms that had been approved but not yet built. It expressed concerns about the site selection process.
To JNCC’s surprise, it later became clear that Marine Scotland had launched a review of the designations, and was questioning aspects of the science behind them. This resulted in a very difficult meeting on August 17.
“I feel seriously let down by Marine Scotland,” wrote JNCC’s head of marine advice, Mark Tasker. “I do not feel they are being either truthful or acting in good faith – and I experienced rather too much unwarranted aggression today.”
It was “very obvious that the so-called impartial review has been designed with particular policy objectives in mind,” he said. “I’m sitting on the train at the moment wondering why I want to carry on working for such people.”
Tasker accused the Scottish Government of wishing “to bend the law as far as possible”, suggesting that they would be blamed if the European Commission went to court. He was backed by his director at JNCC, Paul Rose.
In an email on 21 August, Phil Gilmour from Marine Scotland urged JNCC to attend regular meetings with SSE, the energy company heading one of the proposed Moray Firth wind farms called Beatrice. “SSE view on Beatrice is that there is significant risk that their project could fail due to uncertainty and delay,” he said.
The emails were obtained by Whale and Dolphin Conservation, which campaigns to protect marine mammals. “The Scottish government appears to be allowing concerns for the success of offshore wind to drive decisions about conservation designations,” she said.
“Offshore wind farms and marine wildlife may not be incompatible, but the uncertainty created by Scotland’s delay in designating porpoise conservation areas must be a bigger risk to industry.”
Aedán Smith, head of planning for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, said ministers had made moves to combat Scotland’s “woefully inadequate” protection of marine wildlife. “It is therefore very surprising and concerning that this correspondence appears to show that, behind the scenes, Scottish Government officials may be contradicting this approach,” he said.
He accused Marine Scotland of “seeking to avoid following the advice of their own expert scientific advisers”. It was also “very disappointing that other parts of the UK now seem to be moving ahead of Scotland on the protection of marine wildlife,” he added.
Both JNCC and Scottish Natural Heritage stressed that they were still working with Marine Scotland to try and agree proposed conservation areas for harbour porpoises. SSE declined to comment, and referred queries to the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government stressed it was “fully committed” to having harbour porpoise conservation areas “where they are fully justified and supported by the evidence.” Existing measures helped maintain healthy ecosystems for all marine mammals, a spokeswoman said.
“The four proposals received for Scottish waters did not fully meet the scientific requirements, which is why Marine Scotland has begun a new selection process which will progress as quickly and methodically as possible,” the spokeswoman added.
Harbour porpoises under threat
Harbour porpoises are under threat because they are vulnerable to the fishing industry, shipping and underwater noise. According to the government wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, as many as 400 could die in the North Sea every year after getting entangled in fishing gear.
Hearing is thought to be their most important sense, and they make clicking sounds to explore their environment. That means that they can be seriously disrupted by noise from boats, industrial installations and military firing practice.
Harbour porpoises are the smallest of the cetacean family, which includes whales, and can be found in coastal waters around Scotland. They look similar to dolphins, with round dark grey and white bodies and short heads, though with smaller fins and no beaks.
They are social animals and can come together in groups of more than 100 to feed. They eat a wide range of fish including herring, whiting and sand-eels – and can be eaten by killer whales.
Harbour porpoises are most often seen when they surface to breathe about four times every 10 to 20 seconds before diving for up to six minutes. Their breathing makes an audible puffing sound, giving them the nickname ‘puffing pigs’.
In Shetland, this has led to them being called neesiks, the local word for sneezes. In gaelic they are peileag, and their Latin scientific name is Phocoena phocoena. Sometimes regarded as elusive animals, they live for 10 to 20 years.