UK marine mammals at risk from inconsistent surveys



dolphins at sea

Different marine industries' approaches to environmental assessments could harm the UK's whales, dolphins and seals, according to a new study. 

Researchers from Heriot-Watt University examined 93 cumulative effect assessments conducted by eleven maritime industries from 2009 to 2019. 

Marine industries are obligated to conduct cumulative effect assessments during the planning process when they propose new projects like offshore wind farms, fish farms, harbour developments or turbines. 

The assessments are an attempt to assess the potential of the project to have negative cumulative impacts on the environment, including the animals within it. 

The Heriot-Watt study showed that assessment standards vary, with significant disparity between industries. 

Emily Hague, a PhD student at Heriot-Watt University said: “We scored the eleven industries over time based on how they are assessing their potential to have cumulative impacts on marine mammals. 

“What's striking is the disparity between these legally-required assessments. Some cumulative effect assessments were just a few lines in a report, while others were 50 pages long, including complex and up-to-date and appropriate scientific knowledge and methodology. 

“We found that cumulative effect assessments conducted by fish farms, harbour development projects, oil or gas field development and decommissioning scored the lowest. According to our criteria, these industries showed no improvement over time.  

“Newer industries like offshore wind farms, and tidal and wave energy performed much better and improved over time.”

The cumulative effects of industrial or recreational activity in UK waters could have negative conservation effects on the UK's marine mammals, according to Professor Lauren McWhinnie from Heriot-Watt. 

McWhinnie said: “Human activity within UK waters could influence how whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals use these areas. Changes to their habitats can have temporary or permanent effects on these animals, depending on the nature of the activity. In some instances, this could even lead to population-level impacts.

“Ideally all marine users would assess their activities based on the same standard. This would help safeguard marine mammals and the wider marine environment. This is just one measure we could put in place to help ensure that further development of our marine space is done so in a sustainable manner, prioritising the conservation of important species like whales and dolphins around our coast.”

The Heriot-Watt study was published in Frontiers in Marine Science


Sarah McDaid