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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003


The Sea (cont)

Common Seal

Main Issues

The Pentland Firth is regarded as one of the most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of water around the UK. It is also a major shipping lane, as well as providing access to an important fishing port. There is a real risk of ships running aground. Oil pipelines cleaned and reassembled at Wester are towed out of Sinclair Bay to their destinations in the North Sea and the North Atlantic.

Renewable energy development is a future possibility, and the impacts of wave, tidal and wind power will need to be considered through an environmental impact assessment prior to carrying out any works.  There are serious concerns surrounding the damage to the seabed, spawning grounds and bottom dwelling animals caused by inshore trawling, and little is known about recovery rates.

There is a non-quantified danger to mammals and birds of accidental capture and drowning in fishing gear such as salmon nets, trawler nets and creel lines. Sewage, marine litter and chemical pollutants also pose a threat to marine life.

A major challenge in managing inshore waters is to accommodate all those who want to fish there.  Many commercially fished species such as herring and cod have undergone population crashes in the last fifty years, and there is a need to manage our remaining fish stocks sustainably. The industrial fishing of species such as sand eels is of great concern to many people as they are a major element of the natural food web.

The decline in stocks of migratory wild salmon and sea trout returning to our rivers is also a source of great concern. Many factors are involved including global warming, offshore fishing, interactions with farmed salmon and loss of spawning beds. Predation by seals and fish eating birds is thought by some people to be a major issue but control of these animals is contentious, as highlighted by the recent Thurso River seals debate. This dilemma needs to be effectively addressed in the near future.

There has been a big increase in wildlife tourism in recent years, and shore-based cetacean watching and boat trips out to Stroma and Duncansby attract many visitors. Assuming codes of conduct such as the Dolphin Space Programme are adhered to, this is thought to have minimal negative impacts on marine life. 

 Salmon nets, Berriedale

Current biodiversity projects

Caithness creel fishermen have grouped together to undertake a voluntary project to improve the lobster population. A proportion of female lobsters caught are marked with a V-notch in the tail fan, to serve as a marker to other fishermen. This prevents them being landed legally and enables them to continue breeding. 

British Divers Marine Life Rescue has a base near John O’Groats, and provides assistance to stranded mammals and birds.  International Animal Rescue is currently seeking funds to build and maintain a Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in John O’Groats. If the proposal is successful, this will provide a hospital and rehabilitation facility for diseased or injured animals, as well as a visitor attraction and a centre for training, education and interpretation.

Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ranger Service held a wildlife tourism workshop for local fishermen and boat users at Lybster, in 2002. North Highland College and the Environmental Research Institute provide training for wildlife tour operators.

Seawatch, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Caithness Ranger Service are working on a leaflet to encourage wildlife tourists to watch whales and dolphins from a number of locations around the North Highland coast. The Rangers have also produced a leaflet to help visitors identify seabirds at Duncansby Head.

Estuarine and coastal waters are monitored and classified by Scottish Environmental Protection Agency

Opportunities for action

  • Collect and recycle marine and land-based litter, monitor types of litter and worst affected areas to determine how to improve management practice.

  • Initiate recycling and correct disposal of old or damaged fishing nets correctly by e.g. installing skips at local harbours and identifying markets for recycled materials.

  • Support the Seal Rescue Centre proposal at John O’Groats to help conserve and raise awareness of marine mammal populations.

  • Raise awareness of marine life and issues through wildlife tourism projects, including boat trips and interpretation on the shore and Orkney ferries.

  • Reinstate the old Lybster Lookout site as a shelter for sea watching.

  • Raise awareness of the white fish debate by encouraging evening talks and events.

  • Encourage local diving clubs to take part in seabed surveys and awareness-raising projects such as Seasearch.

  • Ensure biodiversity issues are incorporated into considerations on future offshore proposals, such as wind and tidal power developments.

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