Scotland's bottlenose dolphins driven to the brink by pollution

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A colony of dolphins in Scotland which represents almost half of Britain's dolphin population is facing extinction because of pollution, environmentalists warned yesterday.

A colony of dolphins in Scotland which represents almost half of Britain's dolphin population is facing extinction because of pollution, environmentalists warned yesterday.

A group of 130 bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth ­ which has the world's most northerly population ­ are likely to die out within 50 years unless they are protected from tourists and film crews.

The Moray Firth Partnership, a recently formed conservation group, believes toxic emissions from farming, forestry and industry are causing diseases among the mammals while the disturbance caused by dolphin-watching cruises is upsetting their breeding and feeding patterns.

A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: "We are talking about much more than protecting a rare and vulnerable species, it is about halting and reversing a serious decline in the dolphin population."

Local environmentalists have outlined plans to protect dolphins in the Moray Firth conservation area. They have asked for a ban on paints used to prevent barnacles sticking to ships' hulls, and want stricter controls on discharges of antibiotics at fish farms and ballast water from ships.

The report also suggests a clampdown on illegal salmon fishing and the registration of motor boats in the conservation area. It says scientific researchers and film crews should require a licence before being allowed to swim with the dolphins.

Paul Thompson, an expert on marine mammals from the University of Aberdeen, said scientific researchers were a "potential threat" to the Moray Firth dolphins.

The Moray Firth, on Scotland's north-east coast, was proposed a Special Area for Conservation by the European Union in 1996 in an attempt to protect the dolphins ­ among only two big resident populations in Britain.

According to government research the dolphins will decline in number by about 6 per cent annually. The number of dolphins counted in the firth is almost 50 per cent below the "critically endangered" level designated by the World Conservation Union. The other main group of dolphins in British waters is off the west coast of Wales, in Cardigan Bay. There is also a much smaller colony in Devon and Cornwall.

The campaign to protect the Moray Firth dolphin population follows a similar drive by the World Wide Fund for Nature to instigate a three-point plan to protect the mammals. It has called for designated "marine protected areas", fishing-free zones and coordinated marine legislation.

A recent marine health check report by the WWF calculated the resident dolphin population in the Moray Firth at about 130. It also estimated there was a similar number at Cardigan Bay, but in Devon and Cornwall the population is feared to be about only 45.

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