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Porpoiseful protection?

WDC warmly welcome the news that JNCC, Defra, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Welsh Government and Department of Environment, Northern Ireland are taking an important step towards designating five harbour porpoise Special Areas of Conservation! Big congratulations to all the agencies involved.

But almost 20 years on from our first call for porpoise Special Areas of Conservation, there is still much more to do. The EU Commission has issues the UK with a Reasoned Opinion on this issue and better porpoise protection is long, long overdue.

The UK Statutory Agencies (JNCC, SNH, NRW and NE) contracted scientific analysis and provided two reports (on boat-based and land-based analysis) on porpoise hot spots, considering sufficiency, seasonality and geographic spread.​ The best available data were analysed and the results are robust, well considered and conclusive. They subsequently provided robust Advice to the UK’s various governments that eight sites should be designated. These draft SACs identify the UKs 8 key areas where porpoises are found in the highest densities, including North Minch, Southern Hebrides, North Channel and NE Irish Sea, North Anglesey, West Wales, Bristol Channel, SW North Sea and Moray Firth – that’s one dSAC in English, three in Welsh (one of which is shared with English waters) and four in Scottish waters (one is shared with Northern Ireland).

Unfortunately, Marine Scotland has decided to take a different approach and so there is no consultation on the 4 Scottish proposed harbour porpoise SACs. Scotland contains some of the highest densities of porpoises in Europe and the European Commission felt that there was sufficient evidence for sites with a wide geographical spread in UK waters, including in the Moray Firth. To offer adequate protection and to meet its European commitments, we urge Marine Scotland to urgently set a transparent timetable and a plan to designate these 4 harbour porpoise SACs before the end of 2016.

Harbour porpoise SACs are an essential component of an ecologically coherent and well-managed (a key point, if these are not to be ‘paper’ parks) MPA network and sites are needed throughout UK waters.

Following this consultation, the essential steps to the success of these harbour porpoise SACs are designation, effective management, compliance and enforcement.

Clearly there is a requirement for regular (and better) collection of surveillance data, both at a regional and local scale, to ensure that these sites are fit for purpose. Funding is needed to survey our waters to understand what state our porpoise and other marine life are in. More than 70% of the data to help determine these sites was provided by NGOs! Further, whilst a number of offshore wind developers contributed their data, a number of others did not allow their data to be used, which is disappointing.

Management measures need to be applied to activities that may negatively affect porpoises and their important habitats, such as being caught in fishing gear, collisions (with vessels and possibly tidal turbines), impacts from vessels that cause disturbance and other noisy activities (for example, pile driving, active sonar, acoustic deterrent use) – and importantly – the combined effects of all of these activities.

In addition, we need to ensure adequate protection of harbour porpoises wherever they are, both inside and outside of protected areas, as the UK has legal obligations to protect porpoises throughout their range. So we need to manage wider impacts within and outside of SACs, such as tackling chemical pollution, reducing overall noise levels, turning around habitat loss and prey depletion.

WDC have provided our views on Management Options for effective harbour porpoise conservation in the UK to all the governments.

We need to manage all these activities together, across ocean basins (like the North Sea), and not just in UK waters.

In the next few weeks we will be providing you with a response template should you wish to use this as a the basis for providing your own consultation response. You can read about the JNCC Consultation and NRW consultation

Read MCS’s Mel Moores new blog about the English Marine Conservation Zones and RSPB’s Martin Harper’s blog about the MCZ and Special Protection Areas for seabirds (sharing many of our own concerns).