Fear for protection of marine wildlife
29th April 2003
JAMES REYNOLDS Environment Correspondent
LEGISLATION to protect the UK’s most sensitive coastal environments from oil spills may be denied to what is arguably Scotland’s top marine wildlife area, campaigners have warned.
Environmental organisations are awaiting a decision from the Department of Transport on its choice of marine and coastal sites in need of protection from shipping activities and designation as Marine Environmental High Risk Areas (MEHRAs).
They fear that the Minches, the coastal areas and sea that lie between the Scottish mainland, Skye and the Outer Hebrides, which host some of the most highly protected marine species in the UK, may be denied the increased safeguards that MEHRA status would afford.
The region is internationally important and already has widespread designations including a biosphere reserve, a world heritage site, special protection areas, and 18 proposed special areas of conservation.
Birds such as gannets, puffins and the white-tailed sea eagle - of which there are only 20 pairs in the UK - minke and killer whales, harbour porpoises, bottle-nosed dolphins, seals and basking sharks all use the area’s untainted waters to sustain their UK populations.
Whale-watching alone, which relies on the area’s unspoiled seas for the animals to continue returning, is estimated to contribute more than £7 million a year to the Scottish economy, and WWF believes that the Minches and the related and dependent industries contribute £12 billion a year.
After disasters such as the Prestige oil spill off the coast of Spain, which took about 50,000 tonnes of its cargo of 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil down to the seabed with catastrophic consequences for the Galician coastline, campaigners fear a similar disaster could happen in the Minches.
About 700 oil tankers pass offshore of northwest Scotland every year, as they carry North Sea oil from Sullom Voe in the Shetlands to refineries at Milford Haven in Wales. Industry sources say that an average of one accident every two years and 23 oil spills a year occur on the route.
Until now, shipping firms have adhered to a voluntary agreement with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) not to pass through the Minches, instead taking a route to the west of the Outer Hebrides.
But they are not legally bound to do so, and many still use the shorter route through the Minches in rough seas or to shave time off the journey.
MEHRA status would legally require all oil shipments to avoid the Minches, reducing the possibility of a disastrous accident and a resultant oil spill.
It is more than three years since the government first consulted on MEHRAs and publication of the final report has been repeatedly postponed, with the most recent deadline of March 2003 slipping again to the end of May.
Darren Kindleysides, the marine and coastal policy officer with RSPB Scotland, said: "As well as being environmentally sensitive, the government work on the premise that an area has to be at risk from shipping to qualify as a MEHRA.
Because of the voluntary agreement that the boats will try and avoid routing through the Minches it means that tanker traffic is relatively small compared to other routes around the UK.”
"The voluntary agreement does not mean, however, that boats cannot go through the Minches, and if the seas were really rough they could re-route through the passage, posing a threat to the area," he said.
George Baxter, of WWF Scotland, said: "If true, missing out the Minch as an area worthy of protection from potential oil spills really sums up the UK and Scottish approach to looking after the seas - it exposes the inaction behind the fine words of politicians who hope no-one will notice that one of the most pristine marine areas in Europe is being ignored."