CAMPAIGNERS fear important environmental sites and popular dolphin communities could be destroyed if plans to transfer nearly nine million tonnes of crude oil a year between tankers at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth are given the go-ahead.

Opponents of the scheme are concerned about the impact of any spillage, not least on the Moray Firth dolphins who regularly visit the waterway.

Cromarty Firth Port Authority already has a licence for ship to ship transfers for vessels lying alongside the Nigg Oil Terminal. Between 2009 and 2014 there were more than 85 such operations, involving over 6.5 million tonnes of oil.

But now the authority has applied to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to undertake many more transfers while vessels are at anchor just outside the firth, beyond the headlands at its mouth called the Sutors. This area, just in the larger Moray Firth, is also under CFPA control.

The maximum quantity proposed to be transferred in a single operation is 180,000 tonnes at a rate of around four transfers a month to a maximum of 8,640,000 tonnes per annum. Each transfer operation would take around 24 hours.

The authority’s environment assessment does not rate the risk posed to the environment as serious, but others disagree.

Dr Greg Fullarton, an environmental consultant who lives on the shores of the firth, said it could be disastrous.

He said: “The main protected area is the Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation, designated for the bottlenose dolphin population. We have the Rosemarkie to Shandwick Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest; the Cromarty Firth Special Protection Area; the Cromarty Firth SSSI; and the Cromarty Firth Ramsar site all within a few miles. They have been designated by government here and in Europe precisely because they need protection.

“The emergency coastguard tug is based in Orkney so if something goes wrong there is potential to wipe out dolphins, seal and salmon populations not to mention the birds for which the firth is renowned.”

He questioned how robust the Port Authority's environmental modelling had been as it seemed to be based on one tonne of oil escaping. “Neither does there appear to be any account taken of the fact that the wind can blow from the east for several weeks a year. So any spillage could be blown right up the firth.”

Fraser Mackenzie, a renewable energy developer who lives in Cromarty, said there had been no meaningful local consultation “The local community council hadn’t even heard anything about it till I emailed them.

“Neither is there any discussion in the CFPA’s document of the rationale for the project, no discussion of why this is needed in addition to the existing ship to ship facility at Nigg.”

Highlands and Islands Green MSP John Finnie said "This is a risky procedure and given the world significance of the wildlife and marine environment in the firth, it must be examined very carefully."

But Bob Buskie, CFPA chief executive said: “This is an addition to the current licence, and is now open to full consultation. This type of 'ship to ship' operation has been carried out in the port for many years without incident. The Port of Cromarty Firth (trading name for the CFPA) takes its environmental responsibilities extremely seriously and would be happy to discuss any concerns with interested parties.”

An MCA spokeswoman, said: "The Ship to Ship Transfer Application from the Cromarty Firth Port Authority is currently out for consultation and is not due to close until the end of January 2016. The assessment of the application will be undertaken once comments from the consultees have been received."