Green Lothians MSPs published the results of their ‘Campaign Hotline’ today with 99 sightings of whales and dolphins in the Firth of Forth. Species identified included Minke, Pilot and ‘killer’ Orca whales, Bottle-nosed dolphins and Harbour porpoises. The hotline was set up during October and November last year and is part of the Scottish Greens’ campaign against the controversial ship-to-ship oil transfer project.
The Hotline was launched with posters and placards put up in harbour and seafront locations from North Berwick to Crail. Green Lothians MSPs Robin Harper and Mark Ballard invited the general public, particularly boat users and sea watchers, to provide details of recent firm sightings of cetaceans. The purpose of the hotline was to provide information to the Scottish Executive as Ministers deliberate on whether to intervene over the risky proposal for ship to ship transfers of Russian crude oil to be carried out off the Fife coast at Methil.
It is thought that the oil transfer project is set to get the go-ahead, in part due to inadequate information on the incidence of cetaceans in the Firth. The project’s backers, Forth Ports plc, could be blocked from giving the go-ahead if the Executive could show that the project could endanger these protected species and their habitats.
Robin Harper, Green Lothians MSP, said: “The number of firm sightings show an impressive diversity and number of important species in the Firth of Forth. I am very grateful to those who have provided the details of the sightings and been patient with the thorough processing and questioning to validate the claims by the researchers working on the project.
“I am sure this is just the tip of the iceberg in the Forth and it is clear that their are significant populations of these mammals present. What we need now is political will by Ministers to step in and block the oil transfer project. It is not only the species and ecology of the Firth that will be at risk if the project gets the go-ahead, but the economy around the area which is dependent to a large degree on the state of the natural environment.
“I’m disappointed that it is has been left to members of the public working with Green MSPs to step in and do Forth Ports job for them. Forth Ports plc are meant to be the legal protectors of the environment in the Forth but instead they have down played the existence of these important species in order to strengthen the case for the oil transfers to go ahead and boost their profits.”
The Forth plan, by Melbourne Marine Services Ltd, is to transfer Russian oil into ‘Ultra Large Crude Carriers’ en route to the United States and the Far East and is aimed at boosting profits by cutting corners – to save oil companies time instead of using safe terminals such as Scapa Flow. Since the Donaldson report, commissioned after the 1993 Braer disaster in Shetland, there are only three sites in the UK considered suitable for ship-to-ship transfer – the Firth of Forth isn’t one of them.
Virtually all local authorities and government environment agencies now oppose the oil transfer project. Communities and local newspapers are also demanding that the project be rejected. Green MSPs have campaigned against it since it was first mooted in 2004, including tabling the issue for debate in the parliament for the first time. Mark Ruskell MSP recently successfully argued that public petitions on the issue be considered by the environment and rural development committee of the parliament as part of its Marine Inquiry being heard early this year.
Following the decision by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) to approve Forth Ports revised oil spill contingency plan last year, fears have grown that Forth Ports will grant approval for the controversial oil transfer proposal without paying adequate attention to their responsibilities as the competent harbour authority. Under European environmental regulations Forth Ports are required to take account of protected sea mammals – whales, dolphins and porpoises – to determine whether the oil proposal might have an adverse impact on these species, and may need to obtain from the Scottish Executive a licence to disturb them. Last October Forth Ports was heavily criticised by Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB for the poor standard of data in an environmental assessment carried out by the company.
It was clear to Greens that insufficient up-to-date information about the status of whales & dolphins using the Forth was being used by Forth Ports to conclude that the oil transfers would not pose a threat to protected sea mammals. All information obtained about the status of whales & dolphins will be supplied to the Scottish Executive through their conservation advisers to support the case for the deputy environment minister, Rhona Brankin to refuse to licence the oil transfers.
Results of hotline
During a two month period the hotline received calls from a total of 16 members of the public reporting specific and confident sightings of whales & dolphins using the Forth. All phone reports were subsequently followed up by a researcher conducting telephone interviews with respondents to verify facts and question uncertainties.
Respondents were mostly from Fife, predominantly from addresses in coastal communities, but ranging as far apart as East Lothian and Perthshire.
The results of the verified sightings, which have been referred to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society for collation with their wider records reveal an incidence of whales and dolphins using the Firth of Forth which is diverse and widespread.
A total of sixteen competent sighting reports have amassed records of 99 individual animals observed either singly or in groups of varying size, and covering at least 5 different species.
Species represented in the reports include: minke whale, pilot whale, orca, bottle-nose dolphin, and harbour porpoise.
Sightings were recorded from the open sea off the Bass Rock to as far apart as North Berwick and Fife Ness. And from inshore locations off East Neuk villages, East Lothian and Kirkcaldy
Next step will be for Green MSPs to convey the collated data to Scottish Natural Heritage, either directly or through the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, with a request that the data be used to inform SNH assessment of the risks posed by oil transfers to protected species and habitats in the context of Scottish Executive responsibilities under the EU Habitats Directive.