Shetland Times Column 20th May 2022

Whether through provision of food, energy, or fascinating wildlife, the coast and seas of Scotland have for centuries been bountiful, but as we continue to expand our use of the seas we are met with increasingly difficult challenges.

Having worked with the ‘Stop Sea Blasts’ campaign, I was pleased to bring a debate to Parliament on protecting marine life during unexploded ordnance removal, and it attracted cross-party support. 

Removing munitions that have been on the seabed for decades can be an unstable and dangerous procedure.

I recall the time a trawler, the Ross Kestrel, fishing off Fair Isle hauled up a torpedo in their nets. The torpedo exploded and two of the crew were killed.  Lerwick lifeboat went to their rescue and escorted the boat into the harbour.

There are an estimated half a million unexploded ordnance items (UXOs) in waters around the UK, many in the areas designated for offshore windfarms.

UXOs are usually cleared by ‘high order’ detonations resulting in creating a large underwater blast, and the familiar water explosion. This can affect the auditory systems of marine mammals to potentially lethal levels, which can impact animals up to 30km away.

Alternative ‘low order’ detonation by deflagration processes is less disruptive, reduces acoustic output and the affected area to 750m. The Scottish Government is awaiting analysis from a Danish Navy trial of low order deflagration which was conducted earlier this year. I asked the Minister for an update on the timing for the results of these tests and was told the final analysis will be released as soon as possible.

We learn more about fascinating marine mammals every day, not least through the reports on Shetland Orca Sightings Facebook page. They are intelligent and social creatures, and rely heavily on their auditory systems which, if impaired, can disrupt navigation, feeding and communication, while noise trauma can cause permanent hearing loss.

A report into the 2011 incident at the Kyle of Durness, where 39 long-finned pilot whales became stranded leading to 19 deaths, revealed that noise from munition disposal operations in the area at the time was the probable cause of the strandings and deaths.

The responsibility for issuing licences for the clearance of unexploded munitions in Scottish waters falls to Marine Scotland so it’s important the organisation is well-resourced not least to ensure that those with licences are using the least damaging methods of clearance.

I asked the Minister to confirm if it is the Scottish Government’s intention to end the use of all ‘high order’ detonations, as ‘low order’ should be the preference for environmental and human safety. She responded that current frameworks prioritised this but for commercial use further analysis of trial data is needed.

Scotland could lead the way and be at the forefront of new industries and techniques to mitigate impacts to Scotland’s marine environment and I offered to work with the Scottish Government to secure a position that is binding and enforceable to help protect sea life and marine mammals.

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