DOLPHIN-spotting boats operating from the Cromarty Firth may pose the greatest risk to the Moray Firth’s resident population of 200 bottlenose dolphins, a new report for Scottish Natural Heritage has warned.
Routine traffic – such as shipping associated with offshore renewables fabrication facilities in the area – is less likely to have an adverse effect on the dolphins than unregulated vessels that seek out the mammals.
Scientists believe that the small and isolated nature of the dolphin population makes them more prone to being disturbed by the tour boats that target foraging hotspots such as the Chanonry Narrows, the mouth of the Cromarty Firth and the Kessock Channel. It appears that the dolphins are less perturbed by vessels that simply pass through, according to researchers.
Experts at Aberdeen University developed a computer model to help predict the effects on dolphins from proposed developments in the Moray Firth area, as well as tour boats and other marine traffic.
The SNH report stated that a lack of information on the likely consequences of marine and coastal developments on the dolphin interest of the Moray Firth special area of conservation (SAC) had acted as a constraint in the past on the public bodies responsible for granting or advising on such developments, resulting in delays in the processing of planning permissions, marine licences or harbour revision orders, “which in turn could hold up important development opportunities for the area”.
The report said that the computer modelling had yielded useful findings on the effect of shipping on dolphins. “It has shown that routine traffic is less likely to have an adverse effect on the dolphins than vessels which specifically target them – unregulated tour boats or recreational craft.”
It concluded that foraging hotspots should be considered sensitive to disturbance by boats and that such activity should be kept to a minimum in such areas. However, there was less need for restrictions in areas where boating activity was predictable and where it did not seek contact with the animals.
Ben Leyshon, of SNH, said: “We aim to produce a tool that can inform future development while recognising we have a duty to protect the wild mammals in our waters.”
George Farlow, vice-chairman of Highland Council’s planning, environment and development committee, said: “This is an important piece of work which will support future sustainable development within the Moray Firth, while ensuring that we afford bottlenose dolphins the protection they deserve.”