A plan to allow ships to dump dirty water into one of Scotland’s most precious and historic bays is facing a series of formal complaints and the prospect of prosecution because of fears that it will destroy a wildlife area and jeopardise a multi-million pound fishing industry.
Orkney Islands Council has run into fierce opposition for pushing ahead with a proposal to allow oil tankers to dispose of their ballast water in Scapa Flow, a large sheltered natural harbour famous for its military history - and crucial for a nearby nature conservation area.
Environmentalists have angrily condemned the council for countenancing “environmental madness coupled with financial folly”. They are demanding that the proposal be withdrawn and that the councillors responsible be “hounded out of office”.
Scapa Flow was mentioned in ancient Viking sagas and was the main base for the British navy in both world wars. In 1919 the Germans scuttled 74 of their warships trapped there to avoid them falling into British hands.
The bay is linked to the Loch of Stenness, which is the largest brackish lagoon in the UK. The loch is protected under law as it has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation by the European Union.
At the moment the tankers that use Scapa Flow have to empty their ballast tanks out at sea. But to save money, the council is proposing to allow them to dump seawater collected from all around the world in the enclosed bay.
According to the Scottish government’s environmental advisers, this would risk introducing aggressive alien species that could devastate Orkney’s fishing industry and natural environment. One recent study suggested that alien species brought into the US Great Lakes by boats now cost the fishing and water industries more than $200 million (£125m) a year.
“In my three decades of environmental campaigning this is one of the craziest ideas I have ever seen,” said Steve Sankey, a local wildlife tourism operator who used to be the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and head of policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.
“It spells potential environmental disaster for Scapa Flow, and may not even realise the economic spin-offs that the local authority is forecasting. In fact if invasive non-native species do get a hold, it could cost far, far more than it generates.”
Sankey has filed formal complaints to Orkney Islands Council and to Audit Scotland, arguing that the council has wasted up to £500,000 pursuing a plan that breaches European law. He has also written to the Scottish environment minister, Richard Lochhead, urging him to call in the plan to prevent it going ahead.
“Scapa Flow’s role in both world wars was epic, and now we have a bunch of myopic councillors who want to destroy that heritage forever. They should be hounded out of office as they are unworthy stewards of Scapa Flow.”
Fiona Matheson, the secretary of Orkney Fisheries Association, warned that alien species introduced in ballast water could cause “a catastrophic environmental event”. Orkney’s £7 million shellfish business was in jeopardy, she argued.
According to RSPB Scotland, alien species elsewhere in Scotland already cost more than £240 million a year. “Once harmful marine organisms are released in ballast water and establish populations, it is too late to prevent the damage,” said the environmental group’s Dr Paul Walton.
The government’s Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency have both opposed Orkney’s plan. “The spread of alien species in ballast water has resulted in major ecological and consequent socio-economic impacts across the globe,” said an SNH spokesman.
Orkney Islands Council, however, pointed out that enabling ships to discharge ballast water in Scapa Flow would greatly reduce their costs. Councillors have recently decided that this is their “preferred” option and have commissioned further investigations.
“The quality of the Orkney environment is tremendously important to this council and we are committed to ensuring that we get the best possible outcome at the end of the day,” said convener, Councillor Steven Heddle.
“Before a new ballast water policy is adopted, a further detailed assessment will be produced in consultation with the statutory advisory agencies and others to enable a full and informed discussion by all elected members. Only when this is complete will a decision be taken on a new policy for ballast water management in Scapa Flow.”
Orkney Islands Council's response to this article can be seen here.