October 5th, 2016 (David Ross). The worst marine site in Europe for the safety of dolphins, has been chosen for the planned transfer of up to nine million tonnes of crude oil a year between tankers, according to an expert.
The Cromarty Firth Port Authority’s (CPFA) has applied for a licence to conduct transfers in an area of sea at the mouth of the Cromarty Firth just into the larger Moray Firth.
A packed meeting in Cromarty this week included representatives from coastal communities right round the area. They heard that campaign group ‘Cromarty Rising’, is preparing to go to court if the Southampton-based Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) approves the application.
Marine biologist Professor Paul Thompson has been leading dolphin research at Aberdeen University’s Lighthouse Field Station in Cromarty for over 25 years. He said:
“If you were trying to find a place in Europe that posed the maximum risk to a protected dolphin population, this would probably be it. It is one of the most predictable place bottlenose dolphins will visit in Europe, and they occur here throughout the year. Most of the North Sea’s bottlenose dolphins occur on the East coast of Scotland, and there are days when 25 per cent of this population could be within a few miles of that site.”
Up to 180,000 tonnes of oil would be transferred at time. Professor Thompson said that in the event of an oil spill, it could not be assumed that dolphins, seals, porpoises or any other marine mammals or wildlife would simply swim away. There was no recognised research evidence they would.
“So it would be incredibly challenging for anyone to produce a risk assessment which didn’t recognise that there was a residual risk of a catastrophic oil spill that could have a major impact on the dolphin population.
“My argument is that at least at a Scottish level, ideally a UK level, we should be doing a strategic assessment to determine whether we need to do ship to ship transfers. If we do, then we should establish where on balance these should occur. Ironically this comes at a time when Scotland is involved in major work on marine spatial planning with Marine Conservation Areas.”
He said dolphins were protected under the European Habitats Directive, and many people assumed that oil transfers could not be permitted within this Special Area of Conservation. But that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“For many years now we have worked to reduce arguably much lesser threats, developing codes of practice for wildlife cruises and controlling disturbance from recreational boat users. However this application to transfer millions of tonnes of crude oil every year in the most sensitive part of this protected area is now receiving serious consideration by the MCA.”
The meeting also heard that a humpback whale had surfaced at one of the points where the tankers would anchor.
But a port authority spokeswoman said environmental responsibilities were taken extremely seriously.
“We believe it is possible for environmental sustainability and economic growth to go hand in hand, and the port continues to demonstrate that. This week’s sighting of a humpback whale is further evidence that our waters attract aquatic and industrial life in equal measure, and that they can continue to co-exist as they have done over the past forty years of port operations.”
She said ship to ship oil transfers have been carried out safely for over three decades. This involved tankers tied up at Nigg jetty as part of the Beatrice oil field operation.
“As this field is now scheduled for decommissioning, this transfer activity has stopped and the associated revenue has been lost,” she said.
It would reportedly earn the port authority around £750,000 a year. But Cromarty Rising maintains, the environmental health of the Inner Moray Firth underpins £260m annually in the local economy.