A WILDLIFE watchdog fears mock warfare and missile fire may be harming whales and dolphins, causing them to flee Scotland’s marine tourism hotspots.
The Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust’s (HWDT) concern over the effect that the Joint Warrior exercise may have on cetaceans is highlighted in its newly published annual report.
The UK-led land, air and sea exercise, the largest tactically focused exercise in Europe, is staged off Scotland’s north west coast each spring and autumn, featuring submarine warfare, loud missile and small arms firing. Now the trust has announced that it plans to send its survey vessel, the Silurian, into the mock war zone this autumn to monitor the effects.
Joint Warrior can see up to 85 aircraft, 22 ships and three submarines taking part and the north west of Scotland, with its low population and combination of deep and shallow water, is seen as an ideal location.
But the area is renowned for its plentiful array of spectacular wildlife, which is the lifeblood of its marine tourism industry.
The report states: “HWDT has ongoing environmental concerns regarding the military exercises that take place on the west coast of Scotland, specifically the Joint Warrior exercises.”
Kerry Froud, Marine Biodiversity Officer for the trust, said yesterday: “There is a lot of concern and that is why we are hoping to go ahead with the survey.
“There are different worries, including that if the sonar from the vessels is quite intense it could rupture the eardrums of whales and dolphins and there could be an issue with seals too. Whales and dolphins use echo location to hunt prey and to navigate and if the sound is interfered with it can interfere with their navigation.
“Another concern is that it could scare them away. It has been documented by different people – there are eyewitness accounts of minke whales fleeing the area, people have seen that here in the Hebrides, so it’s trying to work out if it is related.”
The ten-day survey is scheduled to take place during the two-week long autumn 2014 Joint Warrior exercise, said Miss Froud, adding that the organisers were co-operating with the trust over the monitoring plan.
The trust carries out frequent marine surveys and notes any changes in cetacean behaviour during the exercise. Acoustic recordings will also be made.
Military activity is not the only threat to whales and dolphins according to the report, which states that 70 per cent of marine litter collected by the trust last year was plastic, which can cause harm if creatures become entangled in it or digest it.
There were 792 sightings of marine creatures reported to the trust in west coast waters last year, while its own research vessel team made 722 marine observations. The most common sighting reported was harbour porpoise, with 316 recorded compared to 173 the previous year. Reports of basking sharks however, declined to 32 last year compared to 68 in 2012.
Miss Froud said: “The weather conditions were better in 2013 than 2012 which may have something to do with the number of porpoise sightings, but we are not really sure about the basking shark numbers.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The MoD is committed to taking all reasonable and practical measures to protect the environment and mitigate effects on marine mammals.
“Environmental Impact Assessments have been produced where required, such as for the use of active sonar and live weapons, as well as consultation with landowners, national stakeholders and local communities to ensure appropriate mitigation procedures are put in place.”