Work has been carried out in recent years by UK statutory nature conservation bodies to identify Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for harbour porpoise in UK waters. In June 2015 the statutory nature conservation bodies provided advice to the UK Government and devolved administrations about draft SACs for harbour porpoise in UK waters.
Following receipt of this advice from the statutory nature conservation bodies, the government must give its approval for the draft SACs to proceed to formal consultation (at which point the sites become possible SACs).
On 15 December 2015, following a review of the advice from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) for four draft SACs for harbour porpoise by Marine Scotland Science, Scottish Ministers wrote to SNH and JNCC to advise them not to proceed to consultation with these proposals.
On its website the Scottish Government states that it “remains committed to having harbour porpoise SACs in Scottish Waters, where they are fully justified and supported by the evidence. A new selection process led by Marine Scotland is now underway and updates on this identification process will be provided on this page when they become available.”
The rest of the UK however took a different approach. Based on the advice received from the statutory nature conservation bodies, Defra, on behalf of England and offshore, and the governments of Wales and Northern Ireland decided to proceed to consultation with five of the sites submitted to them as draft SACs in June 2015.
Consultation on these possible SACs began in January 2016 and was due to end on 19 April 2016 however due to a calculation error in some of the consultation documents concerning the way in which the proportions of the harbour porpoise populations occurring within the possible SACs have been estimated the consultation period has been extended by two weeks and will now close at midnight on 3 May 2016. It has been emphasised that the error does not affect the evidence or methodology used to identify the possible SACs or their boundaries.
JNCC have stated that they are consulting on the scientific basis on which the proposed boundaries are based and on the draft UK Socio-Economic Impact Assessment. There is no reference to consultation on the draft conservation objectives, an aspect of any harbour porpoise SAC designation that will be of crucial importance to many stakeholders.
During this consultation period workshops and public drop-in events are being held by JNCC to understand the views of stakeholders on the possible SACs.
There remains a lot of uncertainty about the practical effects of the designation of the possible SACs and this is a key issue for offshore projects at pre-application stage and application stage as well as for projects which have been consented but not yet commissioned since SAC designation could result in the review of a consent decision.
This is therefore an important issue for the offshore energy industry and we are monitoring it closely. Watch this space for further updates and feel free to come and see us at Stand Q60 at All-Energy 2016 in Glasgow on 4 and 5 May.