A new study is the first in a series to understand how marine mammals like porpoises, whales, and dolphins may be impacted by the construction of wind farms off the coast of Maryland. The new research offers insight into previously unknown habits of harbour porpoises in the Maryland Wind Energy Area, a 125-square-mile area off the coast of Ocean City that may be the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.
Ocean wind turbine construction is complete off Block Island, Rhode Island. Onshore and offshore wind turbines give off infra-sound.”
Accusations fly that Scotland’s endangered harbour porpoises are being sacrificed for offshore wind farms by Rob Edwards
“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.
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.”
You may ask ‘What is blue carbon’? Have you been paddling in rock pools among green wavy fronds or snorkelling or diving and watching fish dart in and out of sea grasses? Well those grasses and the sandy areas where they grow, are important carbon sinks, the Scottish Coastline being the home to many of them. Sea grass meadows, salt marshes’ maerl beds occur in shallow waters and tidal marshes. These are valuable carbon sinks just like the peat bogs and forests on land they are carbon rich and play an important part in our marine ecosystem. If these ecosystems are degraded or damaged by human activities and their carbon sink capacity is lost, the resulting emissions of CO2 will contribute to further climate change.
In 2012 at a meeting in Brussels, hosted by MEP Struan Stevenso, PIA BUCELLA – DIRECTOR DG ENVI in the European Parliament advised the meeting- also attended by members of Marine Scotland that:
We need to maintain coastal biodiversity to keep a healthy coastline in order that our blue carbon systems will guarantee a healthy living in the future. We need to create frameworks, which can ensure economic development while not damaging the environment. Therefore EIA – Environmental Impact Assessments -MUST be carried out before off-shore developments are begun. It is unacceptable to begin renewable energy developments without having done the research first.
Better, therefore, that independent EIA’s are carried out from the outset, whether these are nature-protected sites or not. The public must be informed and consulted with and there must be transparency.
One questions why there was no pre installation research work at Robin Rigg in the Solway –Scotland’s first offshore development. 100 turbines are sited in waters from 4 to 23 meters over an area of 59 kilometres where post installation research should now be carried out. Local fishermen, commercial and recreational, coastal communities in the Solway and local tourism businesses should be asked to report on the impact of Robin Rigg.
We need more research on blue carbon. 7th Framework Research programme is recommended a source of funding for more research on blue carbon, on ecosystems at sea etc. This needs to be independent university research.
MARINE SCOTLAND say that they are undertaking seabed mapping to pick up whether there is any seagrass and will seek to look more closely at sedimentation issue. They say that are responsible for legislation involved with allowing a developer to proceed. We have a 1-stop shop. We need to satisfy nature conservation needs etc. and full public consultation is always necessary.
I was representing Communities Against Turbines and we did not agree with the rosy view of the planning system espoused by Marine Scotland. There was too much of a race against time and ticking boxes. One-stop shop seems to be designed to drive legislation through and not consider recreational sea anglers affected as much as fishermen. The definition of offshore is usually out of sight and miles away from the shore. However, windfarms are often inshore. i.e. within 6 miles which will certainly impact on Blue Carbon.
The Solway Firth has huge blue carbon issues to consider with seagrass beds and a rich bio-diversity an area where Dong Energy wished to build a huge windfarm (40 to 45 turbines) in Luce Bay. Many over-wintering birds use inner Solway. UK seagrass beds are declining so we really must protect this area of Galloway. Shark tagging and research is at risk. Sharks (SPURDOG) and Tope use Luce Bay as a mating ground. Noise and electro-magnetic affects may modify behaviour of fish and other species and dolphins, whales, porpoises will all be affected. An SNH report shows this area is rich in invertebrates and 3 species of seagrass. The need is to research possible impacts now, not after the windfarm is built. Such research must be independent and not paid by developer.
MIKE COHEN CEO of the Hoderness Fishing Group and a marine Biologist said that seagrass meadows do not exist in the area off Yorkshire as it is an eroding coastline. Developments in one part of coastline impact elsewhere. Release of sediment can be colossal and what is worrying is what happens to that sediment and where it lands. The gas interconnector to Scandinavia caused so much sediment displacement it changed the nature of the seabed. Dead areas occurred, where sediments filled rocks and crevices which had been ideal habitats for lobsters and crabs.
Sediment changes a rocky bumpy seabed into something as flat as a carpark. Lobsters will not escape from this. They travel no more than 1 km in their lifetime. Sedimentation, erosion must be considered. Even beach levels have changed by several metres over a matter of weeks, even 5 miles away. These consequences to the marine environment must be considered by the renewable industry.
ROBERT TRYTHALL from NO TIREE ARRAY said that this was a real worry for Tiree where the main fishing is for shellfish, lobster and brown crab. Fishing will be decimated on the natural reef around Tiree where 9 boats, 18 to 20 fishers are directly employed. Why destroy a fantastic natural reef and habit for scallops, crabs and lobsters. There is no guarantee that creating a new reef housing turbines will not cause irreversible damage to the fishing off Tiree. There is significant kelp around Tiree so an EIA is essential before any turbine development.
The Great Northern Diver – one of the main protected species of bird is found here. Also it is major migratory path for basking sharks and whales. Whale and shark tourism is vitally important. Tiree is world famous for its surfing championships.
Tiree population is just 750. The nearest line of turbines is only 5 km offshore. Most EU offshore wind farms are over 25 km so why in Scotland are we planning within 5km? 40% OF Scottish offshore plan proposed for Tiree with an area 4.8 times size of Tiree’s landmass. Highest spot on island only 145 metres, so visual impact across whole island is all encompassing. Skerryvore lighthouse is tallest in UK at 48 metres, but turbines being planned are up to 205 metres high. The array will take place in depths of 0 to 70 metres where an abundance of kelp forests grow around the island
The offshore sector’s high costs have led to a number of promising potential projects around UK being shelved in recent years, including the planned £5.4 billion 300-turbine Argyll Array off the coast of Tiree, abandoned as financially unviable by Scottish Power in 2013 after four years of planning.