Boat-based wildlife tour companies should be licensed and regulations put in place to protect marine animals and seabirds, according to conservationists.
The call comes following a massive rise in the number of experiences on offer in important wildlife hotspots, raising fears over the potential impact on protected animals and birds.
Scotland is benefiting from a boom in nature tourism, with people travelling from across the globe to see creatures such as puffins, basking sharks and killer whales. But it’s not known how many businesses are running wildlife-watching trips around the coasts or which species are being targeted.
Wildlife tourism nets more than £127 million for the Scottish economy each year, and the figure is growing. Official figures suggest sea eagles in Mull alone generate about £2m annually, while dolphin-watching on the east coast is worth £4m.
The industry offers a lifeline for many of the country’s most remote communities, where people often struggle to find work.
Sarah Dolman, from Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), says the Moray Firth, which is home to a resident population of bottlenose dolphins, is particularly under pressure.
There are also concerns over tours offering the chance to swim with basking sharks, seals and sometimes whales on the west coast of Scotland.
In Scotland it is an offence to harass or recklessly disturb protected animals such as whales, dolphins, turtles and basking sharks.
Government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has set out a voluntary code of conduct for watching marine wildlife, which includes guidance on how close you can get to particular creatures. Some tour operators have received training under the WiSe scheme for minimising disturbance to marine wildlife. But the charity says further measures are urgently needed.
“Our marine wildlife tourism is vital for communities, but it cannot be delivered at the expense of the wildlife being viewed,” Dolman said.
“As far as I’m aware, it’s the only marine industry in Scotland and the UK that isn’t managed in any way. Anyone can buy a boat and start offering trips, and there is no capacity to limit that anywhere.
“There is a voluntary code of conduct, which goes some of the way, but that’s not enough. Scotland has got a marine tourism strategy – the plan is to increase tourism, and we’re fully supportive of that. But we just want to be ahead of the game on this issue, make sure the management is in place before something bad happens.”
WDC is one of 35 organisations that make up the coalition Scottish Environment Link. Others include the Marine Conservation Society, WWF Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
The group is now urging the Scottish Government to regulate marine wildlife tourism as soon as possible, which they say benefits nature and the economy.
Members have written to environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham, outlining their concerns.
Dolman said: “What licensing will do is provide an oversight of tour operators that are working around Scotland and it would be able to provide conditions on licences – so you could put in a condition that every commercial operator is trained.
“That’s the main point of the letter, but we’re also asking that management for tourism is looked at in the new marine protected areas.”
They say measures should include licensing, compulsory training and the creation of a database of operators.
A spokeswoman for SNH said: “We strongly recommend that anyone watching marine wildlife keep their distance and follow the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code.
“This offers practical guidance for everyone who watches marine wildlife around Scotland, whether they are on the shore or at sea, and will help you to avoid disturbing animals.”