Plans to protect endangered porpoises around the Scottish coast have been blocked by the Scottish Government to help clear the way for new offshore wind farms, according to internal government emails.
Senior wildlife advisors have privately accused the government’s Marine Scotland directorate of displaying “unwarranted aggression” and being “untruthful” about its agenda. They also warn that Scottish ministers are trying “to bend the law as far as possible” and could end up being fined for breaking European environmental rules.
Marine Scotland has delayed four proposed conservation areas for harbour porpoises by raising objections to the science. But 48 pages of detailed email exchanges reveal that officials were worried about “a significant risk” that a major wind farm planned for the Moray Firth could fail.
Environmental groups have attacked the Scottish Government for allowing the political drive for wind farms to overrule the science of saving wildlife. It is “very disappointing” that this has caused Scotland to fall behind the rest of the UK on protecting harbour porpoises, they say.
In October 2014, the European Commission warned the UK government that it would be taken to court for failing to designate special areas of conservation for harbour porpoises. This was seriously compromising moves to protect the species, the commission said.
In response UK governments began a designation process that ended last week with proposals for five harbour porpoise conservation areas around England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But four other areas planned for Scottish coastal waters were dropped.
One of the areas that was abandoned was in the Moray Firth, around and to the north of Fraserburgh. This is where two huge offshore wind farms backed by the Scottish Government are planned, with over 300 turbines.
Other proposed conservation areas that were shelved were in the Minch between the Isle of Lewis and the coast around Ullapool, and around the islands of Mull, Jura and Islay. A fourth area has been sliced in half, with the section next to Northern Ireland retained but the bit off the southern coast of Galloway expunged.
Porpoise conservation areas as originally proposed
All the porpoise areas were proposed by the UK Joint Natural Conservation Committee (JNCC), which works with devolved wildlife agencies, including Scottish Natural Heritage. But emails from April to November 2015 released by JNCC disclose that the four Scottish areas were fiercely opposed by Marine Scotland.
An initial email from a Marine Scotland scientist pointed out that the proposed designations would “have implications” for wind farms that had been approved but not yet built. It expressed concerns about the site selection process.
To JNCC’s surprise, it later became clear that Marine Scotland had launched a review of the designations, and was questioning aspects of the science behind them. This resulted in a very difficult meeting on 17 August.
“I feel seriously let down by Marine Scotland,” wrote JNCC’s head of marine advice, Mark Tasker, that evening. “I do not feel they are being either truthful or acting in good faith – and I experienced rather too much unwarranted aggression today.”
It was “very obvious that the so-called impartial review has been designed with particular policy objectives in mind,” he said. “I’m sitting on the train at the moment wondering why I want to carry on working for such people.”
Tasker accused the Scottish Government of wishing “to bend the law as far as possible”, suggesting that they would be blamed if the European Commission went to court. He was backed by his director at JNCC, Paul Rose.
I feel seriously let down by Marine Scotland. I do not feel they are being either truthful or acting in good faith. Mark Tasker, Joint Nature Conservation Committee
In an email on 21 August, Phil Gilmour from Marine Scotland urged JNCC to attend regular meetings with SSE, the energy company heading one of the proposed Moray Firth wind farms called Beatrice. “SSE view on Beatrice is that there is significant risk that their project could fail due to uncertainty and delay,” he said.
The emails were obtained by Whale and Dolphin Conservation, which campaigns to protect marine mammals. “The Scottish government appears to be allowing concerns for the success of offshore wind to drive decisions about conservation designations,” she said.
“Offshore wind farms and marine wildlife may not be incompatible, but the uncertainty created by Scotland’s delay in designating porpoise conservation areas must be a bigger risk to industry.”
Aedán Smith, head of planning for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, said ministers had made moves to combat Scotland’s “woefully inadequate” protection of marine wildlife. “It is therefore very surprising and concerning that this correspondence appears to show that, behind the scenes, Scottish Government officials may be contradicting this approach,” he said.
He accused Marine Scotland of “seeking to avoid following the advice of their own expert scientific advisers”. It was also “very disappointing that other parts of the UK now seem to be moving ahead of Scotland on the protection of marine wildlife,” he added.
Both JNCC and Scottish Natural Heritage stressed that they were still working with Marine Scotland to try and agree proposed conservation areas for harbour porpoises. SSE declined to comment, and referred queries to the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Government stressed it was “fully committed” to having harbour porpoise conservation areas “where they are fully justified and supported by the evidence.” Existing measures helped maintain healthy ecosystems for all marine mammals.
“The four proposals received for Scottish waters did not fully meet the scientific requirements, which is why Marine Scotland has begun a new selection process which will progress as quickly and methodically as possible,” said a government spokeswoman.
The emails: Why would I want to carry on working for such people?
Mark Tasker, Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), 14 August 2015: “David informed me that Marine Science Scotland (MSS) have been reviewing our work and have some strong concerns. This came as a complete surprise.”
Tom Stringell, Natural Resources Wales, 14 August 2015: “I find it quite astonishing, given the involvement of all govnts right from the beginning and the staged sign off, that MSS are bringing this up now, and why it has taken them so long (nearly a year) to review the science. Astounding. I think it is fairly obvious where this push has come from…”
Mark Tasker, JNCC, 17 August 2015: “I feel seriously let down by Marine Scotland – I do not feel they are being either truthful or acting in good faith – and I experienced rather too much unwarranted aggression today. They claim good motives but I cannot believe that as they are not answering critical questions on timing and a number of other issues. It is also very obvious that the so-called impartial review has been designed with particular policy objectives in mind. I’m sitting on the train at the moment wondering why I want to carry on working for such people – it is difficult enough marshalling the SNCBs [Statutory Nature Conservation Bodies] without having untruthful policy people to work to. I do understand that they are working to a Government that wishes to bend the law as far as possible, but it is very unclear to me as to whether the policy side have actually briefed upwards fully in relation to the risks of doing that. I would be in a very difficult position if this ever went to court.”
Paul Rose, JNCC director to Tasker, 18 August 2015: “I pretty much agree with you on all points…My judgement is that the unwarranted aggression came when we started to successfully defend ourselves against their challenges.”
Phil Gilmour, Marine Scotland, 21 August 2015: “SSE [Scottish and Southern Energy] view on Beatrice is that there is significant risk that their project could fail due to uncertainty and delay and not on the grounds of being able to justify an environmentally sustainable project with the HP SAC [Harbour Porpoise Special Area of Conservation] in place given the constraints within the Investment Contract process.”
Mark Tasker, JNCC, 30 October 2015: “What we need is truthfulness from Scotland over their actual intensions. We have not had truthfulness or consistency since the first intervention on this. They cannot do nothing or they will be infracted, and rapidly, and would not have a scientific leg to stand on.”
Mark Tasker, JNCC, 9 November 2015: “Marine Scotland are believing their own untruths/not full truths. I love the “better openness with stakeholders” in this – they have hardly talked to NGOs so far, and have told the renewables industry everything, while at the same time not briefing their own Scottish renewables regulators!”
Harbour porpoises: the puffing pigs of the sea under threat
Harbour porpoises are under threat because they are vulnerable to the fishing industry, shipping and underwater noise.
According to the government wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, as many as 400 could die in the North Sea every year after getting entangled in fishing gear.
Hearing is thought to be their most important sense, and they make clicking sounds to explore their environment. That means that they can be seriously disrupted by noise from boats, industrial installations and military firing practice.
Harbour porpoises are the smallest of the cetacean family, which includes whales, and can be found in coastal waters around Scotland.
They look similar to dolphins, with round dark grey and white bodies and short heads, though with smaller fins and no beaks.
They are social animals and can come together in groups of more than 100 to feed.
They eat a wide range of fish including herring, whiting and sandeels – and can be eaten by killer whales.
Harbour porpoises are most often seen when they surface to breathe about four times every 10 to 20 seconds before diving for up to six minutes.
Their breathing makes an audible puffing sound, giving them the nickname ‘puffing pigs’.
In Shetland, this has led to them being called neesiks, the local word for sneezes. In gaelic they are peileag, and their Latin scientific name is Phocoena phocoena.
Sometimes regarded as elusive animals, they live for 10 to 20 years.
The released emails in full
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 24 January 2016.
Cover image thanks to AVampireTear via Wikimedia Commons.