WDC is delighted that the first Scottish harbour porpoise Special Area of Conservation in the Inner Hebrides and the Minches has been designated by Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Roseanna Cunningham. This is a tremendous campaign success for us and we’d like to thank the thousands of WDC supporters who got involved and urged the Scottish government to take action.
This is timely, as WDC join the EU’s Marine Natura 2000 Seminar in Malta this week to assess the sufficiency of the proposed European Sites of Community Importance in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Macaronesian marine regions (the MPA network). At this important meeting where the EU wide Natura network is assessed, we will advocate that Scotland, along with the rest of the UK and our European neighbours, have more work to do to complete the Natura network, including for marine mammals (the network includes harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, grey and harbour seals).
UK waters are home to about 50% of the European North Atlantic porpoise habitat, demonstrating an incredible biological richness compared to other Member States. Recognising this, the Scottish government should immediately designate the Outer Moray Firth and North Channel proposed Special Areas of Conservation for harbour porpoises, as advised by the UK Statutory Agencies in December 2014. Further, we look forward to an announcement from the UK, Welsh and Northern Irish governments that they plan to designate a further four sites for harbour porpoises in North Anglesey, West Wales, Bristol Channel and the southern North Sea, following the recent public consultation. The Dogger Bank site in the southern North Sea is special because it is shared between the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, and all three countries, along with other users in the region, need to put in place appropriate management, particularly of cumulative impacts.
Recognising recent research results showing high levels of pollutants that are likely to be affecting harbour porpoise reproduction, and increasing noise levels leading to wide spread and on-going disturbance impacts, the UKs status of ‘Favourable’ requires reconsideration.
We are also calling for the Sound of Barra SAC to include bottlenose dolphins at a Grade that ensures they are a primary reason for designation that would ensure management measures protect them, following the completion of important research by Dr Nienke Van Geel at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). Despite being a discrete population of just a dozen or so bottlenose dolphins, not observed mixing with the larger west coast population of 35 dolphins, the Sound of Barra bottlenose dolphins are currently included in the Network as a Grade D, meaning their presence in the site is non-signficant and the site does not require management for their conservation. Existing bottlenose dolphin SACs in Cardigan Bay, Wales and the Moray Firth, Scotland should encompass the whole range of these populations.
We are also calling for harbour seal SACs to be designated for important offshore feeding habitats. Like the offshore seabird foraging areas that have been put forward for Special Protected Area (SPA) designation, these harbour seal SACs should help to reverse the declining trend in some of the UK harbour seal populations.
And, with other European NGO colleagues (including Seas at Risk, of which WDC are a member), we are calling for a number of other Natura designations for a range of important marine species and habitats throughout European waters, to complete the Natura network.
Currently only 4% of EU marine waters are protected under Natura 2000, far below the 30% target internationally considered by scientists as necessary, if well managed, to sustain long-term ocean health. The EU Seminar will focus on Member States which are not sufficiently protecting threatened species, such as bottlenose dolphins and loggerhead turtles, and threatened habitats, such as reefs and sandbanks. Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain are among the Member States that are furthest behind in their protection efforts.
A 2015 report from the European Environment Agency showed that most marine life protected under the Natura 2000 network remains in poor or unknown condition, with only 7% of marine species and 9% of habitats considered to be in good conservation status.
Site based Management Plans and Conservation Objectives should be required for all designations, and wider conservation measures are also necessary throughout European waters, particularly for species such as cetaceans, who are offered ‘strict’ protection throughout their range.
The EU Directives have been found fit-for-purpose. The UK needs to maintain the level of protection and the spirit of the Directives, however our relationship with the EU proceeds.