The Moray Firth is home to the last remaining resident group of bottlenose dolphins in the North Sea. © Rebecca-Belleni-Photography/iStock
A proposal to pump millions of tonnes of crude oil between ships anchored in Britain’s most famous dolphin-watching hotspot is being opposed by local people, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and Scottish politicians.
Early this year the Cromarty Firth Port Authority applied to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) for a licence to allow ship-to-ship oil transfer at open-water anchorages in the Moray Firth, near Inverness in north-east Scotland.
All five anchorages are in the Moray Firth Special Area of Conservation (SAC), set up under EU law to protect the last resident group of bottlenose dolphins in the North Sea – the mammals are known to use the area around the anchorages for summer calving.
The oil-transfer sites are within a few kilometres of Chanonry Point, recognised as one of the best onshore dolphin-watching sites to be found in Europe.
Thousands of people have signed petitions against the plans, with objections to the MCA consultation (now closed) including an assessment by consultants for Cromarty Community Council (CCC). This claims that the proposal shows “complete disregard” for the dolphins’ welfare.
Up to 8.6 million tonnes of oil could be transferred each year, including as much as 180,000 tonnes (more than 1.25 million barrels) at a time.
Yet, says the CCC report, oil-containment plans appear to be based on a spill of one tonne (around seven barrels).
It adds that tankers will pump oil for 24 hours at a time in an area of high dolphin density, and that untreated ballast water “will be discharged straight into the sea”.
Scottish cabinet secretary Richard Lochhead has said that he is aware of the “many concerns” about the application.
This issue would usually be decided at a UK level by the MCA, but the Scottish government is seeking greater powers over this matter and expects to be consulted fully over the final decision.
Did you know?
192 bottlenose dolphins are believed to live in the Moray Firth.
Find out more about the port authority’s application
How wildlife lensman John MacPherson photographed Moray Firth dolphins
Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine