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Go ahead for new UK oil and gas exploration threatens whales and dolphins

Dolphins with oil rig

Permission has been granted for the development of the UK’s biggest untapped oilfield off Shetland, a decision which will exacerbate the climate crisis and result in the use of damaging and harmful activities within areas known to be critical to whales and dolphins.

Norwegian listed company Equinor, and the British firm Ithaca Energy will now develop the Rosebank oil and gas field in the North Sea, a move that casts more doubt on the UK government’s commitments on climate.

The decision to give the go-ahead for this development is extremely worrying. The waters to the north and west of the UK (and Shetland) are an international migratory corridor for species of whale who breed in high latitude waters to the north of the UK. One area, the Faroe-Shetland Channel, is between 1-2 km deep and important for deep diving species such as beaked and sperm whales (which are known to be particularly sensitive to loud noise), as well as other smaller species such as Risso’s dolphins, and pilot whales, and migratory species of large blue, fin and humpback whales.

Oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities introduce high levels of underwater noise and increases in vessel traffic. Loud underwater noise pollution presents huge threats to whales and dolphins. For whales and dolphins, ‘listening’ is as important as ‘seeing’ is for humans, as they live in a world of water and sound. Noise in the water threatens whale and dolphin populations, interrupting their normal behaviour, driving them away from areas important to their survival and at worst injuring or sometimes even causing their deaths.

Oil exploration also results in significant physical disruption caused to the seabed and water column and the introduction of a range of pollutants, including oil and other harmful chemicals. Every stage of the oil and gas extraction process is harmful to the marine environment.

The role of the ocean, marine ecosystems and whales and dolphins in mitigating climate change is increasingly being recognised and it is of vital importance to prioritise robust protection for the marine environment. This announcement is in direct contravention of the UK government’s stated commitment to an internationally agreed ’30 by 30’ target, which aims to protect 30% of our land and sea by 2030 in order to address both biodiversity loss and the climate crisis.

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