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North Sea gas and oil boom threatens dolphins

Marine conservationists have called for permanent protection of one of the UK's most important colonies of dolphins which is being threatened by a boom in North Sea oil and gas exploration.

Bottlenose dolphins have been living in and around the Moray Firth in the north-east of Scotland for a number of years. They have become a major tourist attraction, as the cold water is credited with the dolphins growing larger than other populations of bottlenose dolphins.

However, experts from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) fear that expansion of the off-shore drilling industry is threatening to drive the creatures away.

There are only around 130 left and a previous mathematical model, based mainly on data collected from the Firth, predicted an annual decline of almost 6 per cent in the dolphin population - which could mean extinction in a little less than 50 years.

Recently Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, issued a temporary reprieve for the dolphins when he excluded the section of sea bed within the Inner Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay in Wales from those areas on offer to oil firms for drilling in the 24th offshore oil and gas licensing round.

Both areas are considered extremely important for marine life in general and for cetaceans in particular. It is feared that any major disruption to the seas in these areas could have a noise impact over a wide sea area and drive the animals out of the adopted habitats.

The dolphins' sensitive hearing can put them at risk from the noise of "powerful impulses" used for the seismic surveys required to find the oil, which travel tens and even hundreds of miles.

The two areas were under threat from applications by oil companies to drill within and adjacent to the Special Areas of Conservation in these regions - the only two in the UK designed specifically to protect dolphins.

An initial appraisal by the DTI showed there was not enough information on the possible effects to ensure the dolphins are protected and a delay granting further licences was introduced while a separate "Appropriate Assessment" is carried out.

"We need to recognise the importance of the entire Moray Firth and Cardigan Bay for dolphin populations and to prohibit such potentially harmful activities in these areas," said Mark Simmonds, the WDCS director of science.

"Though we welcome the fact that the DTI has belatedly recognised that both Cardigan Bay and the Moray Firth, with their resident bottlenose dolphin populations, deserve special treatment, we are concerned that the DTI think they can get round European legislation by re-writing an assessment of the potential environmental effects.

"We urge the DTI to use this opportunity to stop these disastrous plans from going any further."

The WDCS, which has long campaigned for proper protection for dolphins and porpoises around the UK, has said that existing protection methods are at best superficial and called for greater efforts to be made to protect the other 40 or more species of cetaceans found in British waters.

"This clearly shows the need for a proper network of protected areas around the UK coast to conserve our populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises," said Mr Simmonds, who added that the WDCS hopes the forthcoming Marine Bill will include legislation to provide for the designation of a representative network of Marine Protected Areas.

The discovery this week of a pod of killer whales swimming in the Firth of Forth has also increased calls for a rethink on plans to allow ship-to-ship transfers of Russian oil in the river estuary amid fears that it will jeopardise the flourishing wildlife.

Workmen repairing the iconic Forth Rail crossing spotted the enormous predators swimming under the bridge at high tide - the first such sighting in more than a decade.

It is estimated that there are at least four adults and two calves patrolling the waters and feasting on an abundance of seals.

The sightings have added to fears that if Forth Ports is given the go-ahead to carry out oil transfers in the area, it could endanger protected species and their habitats if there was an accident.