Nature “no barrier” to the marine industry, says SNH

7th December 2012 from John O'Groat Journal

A nature conservation chief is happy the rich diversity of marine life in the Pentland Firth can coexist with the arrays of turbines earmarked to operate on its seabed.

Andrew Thin does not want to pre-judge a cluster of surveys being carried out to gauge possible impacts the devices could have on seabirds, fish and cetaceans. But he cannot foresee any conservation “blockers” being set in the path of the fledgling industry.

And the chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is keen to acknowledge the important role the development can play both in attaining green energy targets and in benefiting the far north economy.

Speaking during a SNH informal reception in Thurso on Wednesday evening, Mr Thin warned the real benefits of the development will not be felt for at least five years. Mr Thin does not believe there is an in-built conflict between the recent designation of the firth as a marine energy park and its high conservation status.

The firth contains a network of special protection areas because of its role as a breeding and feeding ground for iconic species such as puffin, Arctic and Great skuas, fulmar and red-throated divers. It is also the home waters for large numbers of seals and a popular seaway for dolphins, porpoises, killer and minke whales and basking sharks.

The studies are investigating issues such as the risk of collisions with a turbine and the potential impact on seabed disturbance and underwater noise. One piece of research is investigating whether two species of diver could be at risk. Another is looking into whether salmon on long-distance migrations to and from west Caithness rivers could be adversely affected.

Mr Thin said SNH is funding the research to inform its response to the applications the prospective developers have made to Marine Scotland. He said it mirrors the advice and recommendations it makes on planning applications for onshore wind farms.

He said: “We’ll be advising on the likely impact we foresee the wave and tidal turbines having on the marine life of the firth and the waters around Orkney.

“We can expect a roll-out of these developments over the next 20 years and we’ll be advising on how best to minimise the impacts.”

He said an important part of this is monitoring the test turbines being trialled by Orkney-based EMEC.

Mr Thin said SNH is liaising with developers to help them provide full environmental assessments in support of their ventures.

He added: “It’s a high priority for us to have in place a streamlined and speedy but thorough process.

“While I can’t, of course, prejudge the studies we have commissioned, I can’t envisage anything I’d see as a blocker.”

MeyGen, which has been allocated the so-called Crown Jewels sites between John O’Groats and Stroma, is hoping to have its consents in place by April so it can have the first of its experimental arrays in the water by autumn 2014.

While unwilling to comment on a specific scheme, Mr Thin believes SNH would be able to accommodate that timescale. He said that in allocating leases, the Crown Estate has already taken advice to ensure the dozen sites are outwith particularly sensitive nature areas.

As an arm of the Scottish Government, he said his agency is signed up to marine energy and the part it can play in climate change. And he is happy the Crown Estate, SNH and public development agencies are “pulling together” to help realise the potential of the industry.

“We all very much hope that marine renewables fulfills its promise,” he said. “It presents a tremendous opportunity for Scotland and puts Caithness at a competitive advantage.”

But Mr Thin, one-time head of the local enterprise company network in Caithness, cautions the technology has still to be proved.

He said: “The commercial phase is five to 10 years away. In the short term, the main renewable resource will be focused on wind, onshore and offshore.”

John O'Groat Journal:

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