Scotland’s growing network of cetacean Marine Protected Areas

All this week we are celebrating our most special places for nature by bringing you a series of exciting blogs about Scotland’s amazing protected areas. Today, we hear from guest blogger Sarah Dolman, Policy Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), about the growing network of protected sites for marine mammals like dolphin, porpoise and whale.

The seas around Scotland host an incredible diversity of cetacean (dolphin, porpoise and whale) species. These are some of the richest waters in Europe, with more than 20 species, from those typically seen around our coastline - harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, orca, minke and humpback whales - to those found farther offshore, such as deep diving sperm whales, little known beaked whales and endangered blue whales.

Cetaceans are wide ranging and like other mobile species they reside in, or return to, known habitats to socialise, to find a mate or a reliable food source. Such areas are essential for day-to-day well-being and survival, as well as for maintaining healthy populations. Areas that are regularly used for feeding, breeding, raising calves and socialising as well as, sometimes, migrating, are essential habitat and are suitable for designation as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). MPA is an umbrella term which covers both internationally important and nationally important protected areas.

The inception of Scottish cetacean MPAs began for bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth, Scotland with the designation of EU Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) back in 2004. You can learn more about the EU network of protected sites and how they conserve species and habitats in this blog from earlier in the week. In 2017, the Hebrides and Minches SAC was created to protect porpoises and, most recently, Roseanna Cunningham, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Rural Affairs, committed to designating 3 additional MPAs for minke whales and for Risso’s dolphins.

Photo Credit: Charlie Phillips, Field Officer at Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Since this protected area was established the small population of bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth has faced increasing pressures in or near their habitat. Oil and gas exploration has introduced seismic surveys, including within the Firth. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) conducts military exercises here, including live firing and active sonar use. Shipping is increasing, ports are expanding, dredging occurs and wind farms are being piled into the seabed. The management of fisheries within MPAs is currently under consideration, although this has been focused on the impacts of fisheries on protected habitats to date and bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises have not yet been included.

Whilst any impacts associated with these sectors is incidental, there is also an expanding commercial marine wildlife watching industry in the Moray Firth that spends the summer season seeking out and interacting with the dolphins. It is thought that this sector may be at capacity, although no monitoring plan or management currently exists. Visitors that come to see the dolphin population contribute more than £4 million to the economy and have resulted in this active seasonal commercial boat-based industry, as well providing a great opportunity for land-based watching.

Photo Credit: Charlie Phillips, Field Officer at Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Although we are still some way from understanding the combined impacts of all the pressures faced by this dolphin population in their day to day lives, the protected area has enabled a focused approach on some activities that may significantly impact on the dolphin population.

The increased requirement for environmental assessment and data gathered through monitoring the site, is perhaps the most significant positive result of this protected area.

The protective requirements of the EU Habitats Directive mean that SAC protection follows the individual dolphins outside of the boundary of the protected site, resulting in a higher level of environmental assessment and protection throughout their range. This would appear to be a holistic and forward looking approach, as well as being novel, enabling assessment of multiple pressures wherever they occur.

We have also made some progress towards national Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPAs) in Scotland (nationally important protected areas that do not qualify for international protection). Proposed NCMPAs resulting from third party proposals from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and colleagues Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) and Cetacean Research and Rescue Unit (CRRU) for Risso’s dolphins (and sand eels) in North East Lewis (Western Isles), minke whales in the Southern Trench (Moray Firth) and Sea of Hebrides (west Scotland) are planned to go to public consultation in 2018.

The Scottish and other governments that make up the UK have the responsibility to deliver an ecologically coherent network of MPAs. Developers and other marine users should demonstrate environmental responsibility and scientists and conservation groups are often those who collect data and train and empower citizen scientists. WDC was responsible for collecting a large amount of data towards the Risso’s dolphin proposed MPA and submitted the third party proposal, with NGO colleagues, for all three cetacean sites. WDC also runs a citizen science project called Shorewatch, with sites in each of the proposed MPAs.

As highly mobile marine species, cetaceans present definite challenges in attempts to develop conservation measures, particularly as there are still many gaps in our knowledge. With this in mind, it will be important to develop MPAs in a precautionary manner. This means ensuring they are sufficiently large (at least in the early stages), monitored, flexible, and adaptive to new information in order to provide us with buffers against uncertainty and ensure critical habitats have been protected.

MPAs cannot manage all pressures. That is why a spatial site based approach (MPAs) is required alongside a wider management (in the wider seascape), to ensure that all cetaceans are protected throughout UK (and European) waters.

Despite the challenges identified, we remain hopeful that the considerable efforts engaged by all the stakeholders involved will contribute to the increased spatial protection of some of the UKs best loved dolphin, porpoise and whale species.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation is the leading charity dedicated to the protection of whales and dolphins. Our mission is to amaze people with the wonder of whales and dolphins and inspire global action to protect them.