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UK Government failed to designate sufficient sites to protect smallest member of whale and dolphin family says EU Court of Justice

The European Court of Justice has today ruled that the UK Government failed to propose sufficient numbers of sites that would protect harbour porpoises in waters off the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish coastline. The European Commission now will ask the UK government what measures they will put in place to comply with the EU Habitats Directive.

The Commission had previously brought action against the UK for failing to designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for harbour porpoises, which led to six sites being designated. However, scientific evidence has demonstrated that additional sites were required in the northern North Sea and Celtic & Irish Sea Management Units in Scottish waters, before the network of SACs for harbour porpoise could be considered complete.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation has campaigned for 20 years to get more protection for this important but vulnerable species and was delighted when Scottish, English and Welsh Harbour Porpoise Special Areas of Conservation were submitted originally to the European Commission.

More than 8,500 people contributed to the consultation in 2016 and supported these sites and WDC’s campaign to make these sites a reality. However, whilst the efforts of the UK to designate these SACs are welcome, more needs to be done.

The ruling by the European Court of Justice today only relates to site designation and doesn’t consider important management measures regarding activities that take place within these areas where the harbour porpoise feed and breed, and so might threaten their future survival.

Harbour porpoises are Europe’s smallest cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species, and they ‘live fast and die young’ – averaging just 12 years. Recent evidence shows that reproductive failure may be due to high levels of pollution and they die in alarmingly high numbers due to bycatch (incidentally capture in fishing nets and gear). Noise pollution in the ocean also causes disturbance, including that generated by the construction of offshore wind farms.

This judgement comes after Scotland announced the creation of its first Conservation Area for porpoises back in September 2016.

Sarah Dolman, WDC policy manager said; ‘The UK’s nature conservation agencies provided advice in 2014 that eight SACs should be designated for porpoise protection. Evidence produced by the Governments nature conservation agencies demonstrated that additional sites are required to make the network of SACs complete.

‘WDC strongly welcome those porpoise SACs that have been designated in English, Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish waters. We would like to see clear, robust and precautionary conservation objectives and effective monitoring and management at the site level to ensure maintenance of favourable conservation status.’