CAMPAIGNERS have claimed a partial victory in their efforts to protect Scotland's most famous school of dolphins from the oil and gas industry.
About 130 bottlenose dolphins live in the Moray Firth off the east coast, in a Special Area of Conservation protected under EU laws.
When the government announced in 2007 it was considering granting licences for oil and gas exploration in the area, conservation groups started a campaign to protect the animals.
The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had been expected to decide in March this year whether to give the go-ahead for the oil and gas industry to carry out seismic surveys.
However, now it has put any activity on hold for 2009, saying that more research needs to be carried out into the potential impact on the dolphins.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) said it was a "mini-victory" for its campaign to protect the area, which has attracted support from almost 18,000 people.
It hopes the research will show the need to keep the oil and gas industry out of the area permanently. However, the government said the research might show both exploration and the dolphins can exist together.
The WDCS believes the noise from seismic surveys and drilling, as well as potential oil spills, present a threat.
Sarah Dolman, head of policy for Scotland at WDCS, said the DECC's decision to carry out more research was a "huge step forward", but added that there was still a long way to go before the issue was resolved.
"The bottlenose dolphins living in this area are incredibly vulnerable, and the UK government's work so far does not consider critical knowledge gaps on the effects of oil and gas developments or how different threats might interact together to affect animals and important habitats," she said.
A spokeswoman for the DECC said the research would aim to find out whether bottlenose dolphins were resident in the inner Moray Firth during the times of year when seismic activity was proposed.
"The survey may enable oil and gas activity whilst at the same time affording protection to the whales and dolphins," she said. "A win-win situation."
She added that the government must ensure that there was sufficient energy to meet demand in the UK.
"Government also has a role in protecting the environment and that is the context in which we have proposed that this study takes place," she said.
The Scotsman's Save Our Seas campaign calls for greater protection for our precious marine life. We want:
• A network of marine reserves and protected areas.
• A system of marine planning, effectively zoning areas for appropriate use, to safeguard important fishing grounds from offshore wind farms and other projects.
• A single organisation to administer this system.
• Scotland to be given control of conservation to the 200-mile boundary with international waters.