The future of Britain's most famous dolphins is at risk from oil and gas exploration, conservationists say.
The bottlenose dolphins of the Moray Firth in Scotland are the best known and most studied dolphins in the UK. They entertain onlookers with their energetic playing and feeding, and are regularly seen near the shore. In 2005 they were given their own sanctuary under European law.
But the Government says it is "likely" to grant a licence for sub-seabed oil and gas exploration in the sanctuary, which means the dolphins will be seriously disturbed, according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). It says that if oil and gas production goes ahead they will face the threats of waste discharge and oil spills.
"The dolphins of the Moray Firth are magnificent and intelligent animals, but they are also incredibly vulnerable. It is unthinkable that the Government should even consider allowing oil and gas into their sanctuary," said Sarah Dolman, who manages the WDCS Moray Firth campaign.
"Oil and gas exploration and development includes intense noise caused by very loud seismic exploration, the placement of rigs and associated pollution and drilling, and finally, in decades to come, the removal of the rigs when the supply is exhausted. Should one licence be allowed, others will surely follow. This means increasing and ongoing disturbance for the dolphins. We do not want this precedent to be set."
She added: "These animals are already facing many threats, including pollution, coastal development, increased boat traffic, food shortage and illegal driftnet fishing. Oil and gas exploration within a habitat vital for their survival could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."
The bottlenose dolphins of the Firth are a small, isolated and vulnerable group – there are only about 130 – which is why a special area of conservation (SAC) under the EU habitats directive was designated in 2005 to protect them in their core habitat. This offers very strong protection under European law.
But seabed exploration blocks in the SAC have been suggested as part of the Government's 24th offshore oil and gas licensing round, when oil companies bid for licences. The Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, has indicated that they may be granted, after a period of consultation which ends next month.
The Government's argument appears to be that there has been exploration work in the area in the past, which did not seem to harm the dolphins, but conservationists reject this.
"This is a test of whether or not we can have marine wildlife protection", said Mark Simmons, head of science at theWDCS.
"Oil and gas development in an area that has been set specially aside for dolphin protection is entirely inappropriate. I think most people in the world would agree with that." The Moray Firth dolphins are often seen from the shore at Chanonry Point, near Inverness. They survive on a diet of fish.
They animals range from 1.9 metres to four metres long, can weigh up to 650kg, with the dolphins of the Moray Firth being among the largest found anywhere in the world. Each dolphin in the Moray Firth population is individually identifiable by the markings on its dorsal fin. Researchers photograph the animals and later compare the images taken with the catalogue of known dolphins to find out which have been seen, where and with which other dolphins. This builds up a picture of the social structure of the group and also tells us more about the animals' core habitat.
The WDCS wants the public to protest, and is organising an online petition to Mr Wicks in an attempt to halt the development.
A rich variety of rare wildlife
* The Moray Firth is a triangular inlet of the North Sea that cuts into the north-east of Scotland. It is the largest inlet of its type in Scotland and has 500 miles of coastline, much of which is cliff. And given the Firth's rich variety of wildlife (it is an EU special protection area) the coast makes an excellent vantage point for seeing animals rarely seen in or around the UK. Common dolphins, minke whales and harbour porpoises have all been spotted from the shores of the Firth. Yet it is the bottlenose that causes great excitement. With more than 130 of the animals that can measure up to 4m in length in the area, it is not unusual to be able to see them rising from the icy waters. The creatures have earned added fame in recent years as protection groups have offered the public the chance to "adopt a dolphin".
It is not just wildlife in which the Moray Firth is rich, however. The Beatrice oil field is already established in the outer Firth and, with resources ebbing, developers are looking for other mineral-rich parts of the area to exploit.