Brits may plead “Brexit”
BRUSSELS, LONDON––Charged in the European Court of Justice with inadequately protecting harbor porpoises to the point of putting the species at regional risk, the United Kingdom now runs the risk of becoming bracketed in international image with such other marine mammal-killing nations and treaty scofflaws as Japan, Namibia, Norway, and Iceland.
Win, lose, or sidestep a lawsuit filed against the U.K. on September 29, 2016 by the European Commission, U.K. residents took a blow to self-image as citizens of an animal-loving nation.
But “Brexit” plea won’t save British image
The June 23, 2016 Brexit vote might make moot the summons issued to the U.K. to explain itself before the European Court of Justice.
If––and apparently when––the U.K. leaves the European Union, the European Court of Justice will no longer have no jurisdiction over the U.K.
But to marine mammal advocates, that legal fact may be in itself a moot point.
“The European Commission is taking the United Kingdom to the Court of Justice,” the E.C. announced, “for its failure to propose sites for the protection of the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena), a marine mammal regularly found in U.K. waters.
13 nations ahead of U.K.
“European Union legislation on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora requires member states to propose a list of sites for a number of species and habitat types, ensuring their protection from threats which could seriously harm them and to maintain and restore them in a favorable status in the whole of the E.U. by taking the conservation measures needed,” the announcement explained.
“Thirteen member states, other than the U.K., have designated sites” for harbor porpoise protection, the European Commission announcement continued. “The U.K. has so far formally proposed only one small site in Northern Ireland, the Skerries and Causeway Special Area of Conservation, and one site in Scotland, the Inner Hebrides and Minches Special Area of Conservation,” the latter designated just three days before the European Commission filed suit.
Blowing in the wind
The U.K. was in 2015 reportedly close to designating a Special Area of Conservation for harbor porpoises in the Moray Firth, on the east side of Scotland, opening on the North Sea. But “Big energy companies scuppered” that plan, reported Rob Edwards of The Ferret, an independent online investigative news periodical.
“Confidential correspondence released under freedom of information law reveals that the Scottish company SSE and Spain-based EDP Renewables warned ministers that a planned conservation area for harbor porpoises could kill their plans for large offshore wind farms in the Moray Firth,” Edwards reported on July 4, 2016.
“The companies cautioned privately that delays and tougher environmental restrictions could cause shareholders and investors to pull out,” Edwards revealed. “They disputed that porpoises needed the protection, highlighted the risk of legal action, and threatened to demand compensation.
“In the wake of intense pressure,” Edwards summarized, “the Scottish government decided to ditch the porpoise conservation area in the Moray Firth,” and instead recommended for protection the Inner Hebrides and Minches Special Area of Conservation, on the west side of Scotland, “where no wind farms are currently planned.”
“Repeatedly urged Brits to fulfill their obligations”
“As the U.K. has an extensive marine area,” the European Commission opined, “it has a particular responsibility for the protection” of harbor porpoises. “The Commission has repeatedly urged the British authorities to fulfill their key obligations for the conservation of the species, as other member states have already.
“Today’s action,” the announcement concluded, “follows a letter of formal notice sent to the U.K. government in June 2013,” followed up in greater detail in October 2014.
Fishing net victims
“Harbor porpoises resemble bottlenose dolphins, with small rounded heads, flat foreheads and a black-lipped mouth that curves upwards, as if smiling,” offered Arthur Neslen of The Guardian. “The mammals are endemic to the North Atlantic, but their numbers have been falling in the Baltic, Mediterranean and the east of the English Channel. Mortalities from fishing net accidents in areas such as the Celtic Sea, west of Cornwall, have cast doubt on the species’ sustainability.”
About 90% of the total European harbor porpoise population are believed to either reside within or make seasonal use of U.K. waters.
Will U.K. run out the clock?
The U.K. government has yet to respond to the European Commission lawsuit, but online activists addressed it almost immediately, urging the U.K. to act positively rather than just running out the clock until Brexit takes effect.
Summarized Care2 petitioner Steve Williams, “Harbor porpoises are the most common cetacean found in U.K. waters. Though their numbers are still relatively high, conservation groups have warned for years that fishing bycatch, noise pollution, and failure to safeguard local fish stocks could cause the population to plummet.
“Under European directives, the U.K. should have acted to safeguard the porpoises,” Williams said, “but robust action has not materialized. Marine biologists specifically note that harbor porpoise mortality appears to be increasing due to a lack of available food. This suggests a massive decline in U.K. fish stocks.
“U.K.’s trend of resisting E.U. fishing regulations and its poor record of cutting fossil fuel use contribute to a disinterest in porpoise conservation,” Williams charged. “The U.K. will have to answer to these claims during the E.U. court case. The ultimate ruling could have wider repercussions that impact the U.K.’s post-Brexit fishing policy.”
Specifically, if the U.K. either inadequately responds to the E.U. lawsuit or simply ignores it, the European Union may feel uninclined to negotiate other terms favorable toward the U.K. on fisheries issues.
The U.K. Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme in May 2016 disclosed that deaths of harbor porpoises from apparent starvation had become increasingly common, based on necropsies of remains found on British beaches.
“In the 1990s starvation was a rare cause of death in stranded harbor porpoises,” Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme marine biologist Paul Jepson told Robin Wylie of New Scientist. “But in the past decade or so starvation has become one of the leading causes of death in these animals.”
Wrote Wylie, “The rise in harbor porpoise starvation began in the early 2000s. Between 1990 and 2002, an average of 4% of U.K. strandings were found to be starvations. But between 2003 and 2014 – the most recent year for which data is available – the rate leapt to 16%.
“Starvation rates in other cetacean species have remained relatively low and stable since 1990,” Wylie added, “so whatever is causing the hike in porpoises seems to be affecting this species uniquely.”
48 new conservation zones needed
Wildlife Trusts living seas program chair Joan Edwards recently asked British environment minister Thérèse Coffey to designate 48 new marine conservation zones.
“If the government lives up to its stated commitments,” said Edwards, “such a network would put us at the forefront of worldwide marine conservation. Designating these 48 wild havens in England as marine conservation zones would go some way to guaranteeing a future for the extraordinarily diverse natural landscapes that exist beneath the waves off our coast.”