Harbour porpoise will become the latest species to receive increased protection in Scotland under a new conservation area. 

Scotland’s first Special Area of Conservation (SAC) has been created in the Inner Hebrides and Minches SAC on the West of Scotland is now Europe’s largest for this species.

Scientists warned earlier this year that numbers of harbour porpoise were falling because of difficulties with catching food and breeding.

They had called on the Scottish government to act and introduce protected sites for the animals.

Species and habitat protection

The new conservation area will help maintain the favourable conservation status of harbour porpoise by providing protection to them and the habitats that support them in Scottish waters.

It will fulfil the Scottish Government legal obligation to protect porpoises in our seas over and above the European Protected Species (EPS) status.

Cabinet Secretary for Environment Roseanna Cunningham said: “I am pleased to designate Scotland’s first harbour porpoise SAC. This will help maintain the favourable conservation status and provide protection to the species and their habitats.

“Work to develop a species conservation strategy and ensuring appropriate management, at site level now begins. Stakeholder engagement will be essential during this process and I encourage everyone with an interest to participate.”

Europe’s largest

Lang Banks, Director of WWF Scotland said: “It's fantastic news that Europe’s largest Special Area of Conservation for harbour porpoise is to be located off the west coast of Scotland.

“We've long called for greater protection for this species and we look forward to working with the Scottish Government and others to ensure that this site contributes to a coherent and well managed network of marine protected areas. We know establishing marine protected areas works, so we look forward to seeing governments around the UK continuing to designate more locations in the future."

Special Areas of Conservation are areas of land, freshwater and/or sea designated under the European Union Habitats Directive as being particularly important for the conservation of the natural habitats and species of plants and animals they support.

Prior to the new site, harbour porpoise were the only species listed in the EU Habitats Directive for which Scotland did not have any Special Areas of Conservation.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) undertook consultation on the proposal to designate the Inner Hebrides and the Minches as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) between 23 March 2016 and 18 May 2016.

The site, which covers 13,801.99 km2, was identified as an important area for harbour porpoise through a rigorous selection process. It will help maintain the favourable conservation status of harbour porpoise by providing protection to the species and their habitats.

Marine Scotland is leading on the development of specific management measures for reducing any unacceptable risks in the Special Areas of Conservation through discussions with the RYA and other organisations.

European Commission to sue UK

In related news, the European Commission is suing the UK at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failure to allocate safe marine areas for harbour porpoises.

The Commission says it is enforcing conservation rules set out in the EU Habitats Directive.

The UK government has held a public consultation on five possible sites.

The SAC sites require EU Commission approval before the UK can launch the necessary measures to protect species in them.

"Due to the unfavourable status of the harbour porpoise in the EU, 13 member states, other than the UK, have designated sites for its protection," the Commission said.

"The Commission has repeatedly urged the British authorities to fulfil their key obligations for the conservation of the species, as other member states have done already."