Study to take soundings on dolphins' attitude to turbines

Scottish scientists are set to gain new insights into the lives and habits of the world's most northerly resident population of bottlenose dolphins and how they are coping with wind turbines in the North Sea.

The study will analyse the movements of the Moray Firth dolphin population. Photograph: Monica Arso/SMRU

The study is one of four new scientific projects selected as part of a pioneering £2.7 million investigation into the potential impact of offshore wind farms on society and the environment launched by the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre (EOWDC).

The £300 million scheme, Scotland’s largest offshore wind power testing facility, will trial cutting-edge renewables technology in Aberdeen Bay.

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Experts say the innovative programme, which is jointly funded by EOWDC owner Vattenfall and the European Union, will put Scotland at the forefront of research and development in the sector.

The successful projects, three of which are Scottish-based, will focus on bottlenose dolphins, salmon and sea trout, vulnerable seabirds and the socio-economic effects on humans.

The dolphin study will track and analyse the movements of Scotland’s Moray Firth population, which now numbers around 200 animals, over the next three years.

These resident cetaceans have been studied since 1989 and are known to travel up and down the east coast, venturing as far south as the Firth of Forth. Now researchers will examine their habits in greater detail than ever before to assess any impacts on their behaviour both during construction of the turbines and after they are powered up next year.

Professor Phil Hammond (above), from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews, is spearheading the work, which will be centred around the Tay estuary.

“We currently have a pretty poor understanding of the effect the development of offshore wind farms has on coastal dolphins,” he said.

“Despite the fact we know a reasonable amount about these dolphins – we know roughly how many animals there are, and have estimates of their birth and death rates – one of the things we don’t know is the rate at which they move up and down the coast.

“This might be something that is affected by offshore wind farms. Turbines may not kill animals but may possibly disrupt their natural movement patterns and impact on the overall health of the group.”

The results of the study will be integrated with data from work in the Moray Firth through collaboration with Prof Paul Thompson from Aberdeen University’s Lighthouse Field Station in Cromarty.