Before Scotland Increases Marine Re-newable Energy Capacity, It Must First Assess the Potential Impacts on Local Cetacean Species

The government of Scotland aims to increase renewable energy power to 50% of total electricity demand by 2020. To meet this goal, Scotland will likely to turn to marine renewable energy sources since it has commissioned or proposed United Kingdom Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEA) on wave, tidal, and marine wind energy, respectively. Additionally, the Crown Estate has announced that ten sites, within Scottish waters, will be available for marine wind energy development. However, the best methods for mitigating negative impacts on local cetaceans, including protected species, have not been determined. Thus, Scotland is conflicted. Should it increase its marine renewable energy capacity to the detriment of cetacean species? Or should it proceed with caution, in order to protect the cetaceans, and disregard its renewable energy goal? Dolman and Simmonds (2010) suggest that long term baseline research and real-time monitoring and mitigation methods be developed. Furthermore, they advise that the Scottish government employ adaptive management in all planning processes so that early learning can be incorporated into future plans. If Scotland is able to adopt some of Dolman and Simmonds’ recommendations, then perhaps it can have both –reliable marine renewable energy and healthy cetacean populations. —Juliet Archer
Dolman, S., Simmonds, M., 2010. Towards best environmental practice for cetacean conservation in developing Scotland’s marine renewable energy. Marine Policy 34, 1021–1027.

Sarah Dolman and Mark Simmonds examined the negative effects of marine renewable energy technologies on cetacean species with regard to political drivers and cetacean conservation. They described the current legislative, political and legal situations in light of the urgent problems presented by climate change. The authors also presented the current research and understanding of how wind, wave and tidal renewable energies impact local cetacean species including harbor porpoises, bottlenose dolphins, baleen whales, and white beaked dolphins. Finally, after synthesizing the above information, Dolman and Simmonds presented their analysis of current best practices in marine renewable energy. Lastly, the authors presented key factors in Scotland’s attempt to implement best practices in marine renewable energy development.
Dolman and Simmonds found that both the UK and the Scottish government have ambitious plans to increase their renewable energy capacity. However, one challenge for developing Scottish marine renewable energy is that the UK parliament, not the Scottish government, has the authority to develop “within 200 nautical miles of the UK coastline.” Yet, the Scottish government is responsible for administering any developments. As the authority, the UK government has completed a SEA to consider the environmental implications of its plan to produce a total of 33 GW of offshore wind energy. Nonetheless, the UK government has not evaluated the environmental effects of wave or tidal power.
Another consideration in marine energy development is the legal protections of certain species. The authors reported that Scotland has 24 cetacean species that are “strictly protected” under the EU Habitats Directive. This law also requires that Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) be set aside for protected species. Currently, Scotland does not have adequate SACs for its protected species, such as small bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises. Scotland also has national laws aimed at protected vulnerable species. Scotland’s laws operate at the individual level, so that it is an offence to “deliberately or recklessly disturb or harass any cetacean… in a manner that is…likely to significantly affect its local distribution or local abundance.” Since this law includes “recklessly disturb[ing]” a cetacean as an offense, the authors predict that lawful activities, such as building wind turbines, may result in offenses. Lastly, Dolman and Simmonds explain that even though marine renewable energies may mitigate the threat of climate change, environmental laws must still be followed.
The numerous potential negative impacts from wind, tidal and wave energy are presented in the paper not as eventualities but as “conquerable” problems. With the construction of each energy system, pile driving has a significant impact because it results in noise and damage to the sea bed. In addition, increased vessel activities, habitat degradation, operational noise, and the method used to decommission plants are potential impacts for all three technologies. Some of these impacts have already been observed. For example, at a Danish wind farm, porpoise detections decreased over long ranges during pile driving. Most of the effects, including pile driving, are still being considered to determine the significant of their impact on cetacean species.

The authors conclude by presenting specific recommendations for the Scottish government. They advise that selecting an optimal location is a chief concern. To accomplish this, they recommend collecting data, on an appropriate scale, in order to determine habitats, species densities, distributions and population trends, among other things. Once a location has been selected, the Scottish government should then conduct a “full and transparent” Marine Spatial Planning. This Spatial Planning should be integrated with UK and Scottish SEAs to decrease important knowledge gaps and improve coordination. Monitoring should also be done in a coordinated way. The authors recommend that industry, the Crown Estate and the UK and Scottish governments work together to conduct baseline and continual monitoring of the chosen site. Lastly, the authors note that independent scientists and marine conservation groups are also needed to answer imperative questions and support industry best practices, respectively. The many considerations and connected factors show that developing marine renewable energy best practices in Scotland will not be easy. 

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