Dolphin protection scheme 'not enough'

NEW measures have been drawn up to protect the world's most northerly population of bottlenose dolphins – but conservation groups say they do not go far enough.

There are fears an increase in industry, dredging and shipping in the Moray Firth could put its population of bottlenose dolphins at risk. Now efforts have been made to give the creatures extra protection.

The Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation Management Scheme focuses on the likes of the oil industry and offshore wind farms. It also addresses boat traffic, water quality and coastal development, as well as dredging and military activity.

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However, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society hit out at the measures, which are all voluntary.

Pine Eisfeld, its conservation officer, said: "It looks nice, but it's not going to do anything for the dolphins. The measures need to be strengthened. Most of them are voluntary schemes."

The measures focus on the Special Area of Conservation (SAC), where the dolphins must be protected under EU laws.

However, Ms Eisfeld said the measures had to extend beyond the SAC, because dolphins moved around.

She said in an ideal world, oil exploration and dredging would be banned in the area, but realised this was probably "a dream".

She also raised concerns that any expansion of offshore wind power generation in the Moray Firth, where two turbines have already been installed, might interfere with the dolphins.

"When the pylons are laid down into the sea bed, the noise is very loud, and you also have all the traffic going back and forth," she said.

The conservation measures have been put forward by the Moray Firth SAC management group, which has worked over the past year to update a previous scheme and introduce a new action plan.

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Jim McKie, its chairman, told The Scotsman he was confident the scheme would help protect the dolphins. "We feel that we are doing everything we can, and it's proportionate to the risks, which is important," he said.

He added that the management group had no powers to enforce measures, but that other bodies would be responsible for regulation.

"The plan outlines what we would like people to take into account when considering activities. We can't do any more than that because we as a group have no ability to force things to happen," he said.

He added: "The whole idea of running these management schemes is to make them co- operative, not alienating certain parties. It's all about encouraging them around the table."

But Mark Simmons, director of science at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, said voluntary measures did not go far enough. He said: "

Conservation requires actual concrete actions. This is the last bottlenose dolphin population in the North Sea."

He argued there should be no oil and gas exploration in the SAC, and called for measures to mitigate the noise produced when offshore wind farms were being built.

The Moray Firth has been earmarked by the Crown Estate as a potential site for a new offshore wind farm. Sites in the Moray Firth, including within the SAC, are also being considered for oil and gas exploration, despite campaigns by conservation groups.

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The SAC management group was established in 1999 to oversee development of the Moray Firth scheme, with support from the Moray Firth Partnership.