Calls for 'quiet' disposal of underwater bombs to protect sea life

Scottish MPs have joined calls for the UK government to tighten regulations to ensure offshore wind farm developers dispose of unexploded mines and bombs littering the seabed in a way that doesn’t harm marine wildlife such as dolphins, whales and porpoises.

Estimates suggest there are around 100,000 tonnes of explosives in the seas surrounding the UK, many of the devices left over from the Second World War.

Though the explosives have lain untouched for many decades, they are increasingly posing problems for developers scoping sites for new offshore energy projects.

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The most common method of disposal is to detonate devices where they sit.

Underwater explosions cause shockwaves that can travel for miles through the sea, potentially deafening - and killing - marine wildlife such as whales and dolphins

But blasts cause major shockwaves that can travel many miles underwater, causing harm to sea creatures, as well as releasing toxins and chemical waste into the water that can impact biodiversity.

A UK government report into the beaching and death of 19 pilot whales off the north coast of Scotland in 2011 was most likely caused by noise from the detonationation of submerged bombs.

A debate was held at Westminster, in response to a request from the SNP’s John Nicolson.

The Ochil and South Perthshire MP has called for a modern technique known as low-order deflagration, which could be “several hundred times quieter”, to be used in place of traditional detonation.

Pollution was thought to have cause a pod of 16 pilot whales to beach on the Fife coast in 2012, but a UK government report concluded that a similar incident, which killed 19 of the animals in the Kyle of Durness a year earlier, was likely caused by naval munitions disposal activities

He said: “These explosions will kill any sea life nearby.

“If they do not die instantly, the pressure wave causes traumatic harm, such as lesions, haemorrhages and decompression sickness.

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“Marine biologists tell us that even if they survive the initial blasts, these can deafen aquatic mammals such as whales, porpoises and dolphins.

“Without hearing, they cannot communicate or navigate, leading to mass stranding.”

He continued: “In layman’s terms, this alternative system makes the bombs safe without blowing them up.

“It allows a small charge to penetrate the bomb casing without detonating it.

“That causes the explosives to burn out, and the device becomes safe.

“This system significantly lowers emissions and noise, thus reducing dramatically the danger to wildlife and the local environment.”

There was cross-party support for the calls.

Speaking after the debate, LibDem Christine Jardine, MP for Edinburgh West, said: “It’s simply not good enough for the explosion of these devices still to be the preferred method when there is an electronic alternative which does not cause the same damage to the seabed or marine wildlife .

“We have seen major whale-beaching around our shores – like at Kyle of Durness 10 years ago, when 19 of them died and DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) found the only likely cause was a munitions operation nearby.

“With major developments ahead, the government should be encouraging the use of an alternative technique that has been used safely for more than 15 years and could help us protect our wildlife from these events.

“We know our seas are currently under threat from plastic waste and climate change, and these explosions add another danger.

“This is a positive step we could take to protect our marine life and sea bed.”

The offshore wind industry is rapidly expanding, with a significant rise in the number under construction or planned in UK coastal waters.

These include the Neart Na Gaoithe, Moray East and Seagreen schemes in Scotland.

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