Assessing harbour porpoise populations in south-west Wales, data issues and implications for conservation and management
The UK Government was recently criticised for failing to fulfil its obligations under the Habitats Directive in respect of designating protected areas for Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena. At the centre of the discussion lay the stringent nature of the qualifying criteria for site selection. Concurrently, there is a growing support for marine renewable energy technologies; however the planning process is often hampered by inadequate marine data to enable appropriate siting or mitigation against potential ecological impacts. The Bristol Channel region's physical environment is a suitable source for the generation of marine renewable energy, and the world's first tidal lagoon will be sited in Swansea Bay. A 10 year dataset was collected, analysed and compared against the qualifying criteria for a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Results revealed that a resident population of porpoise existed and density values of 0.58 hp km2 were comparable with other UK regions. While an insignificant calf adult ratio of 1:13 was recorded, breeding and nursery areas were identified. Analysis highlighted a number of hotspots of porpoise activity, suggesting that these areas are critical habitats, particularly for feeding and foraging. Such information will enable future marine renewable energy developers to select the most appropriate sites. It is argued that existing SAC qualifying criteria prevents recognition of critical habitats for the harbour porpoise and a case is made for an eastward extension of a proposed harbour SAC to include Swansea Bay and the south Gower coast. This paper demonstrates that cetacean data is sparse and even though this study has filled important knowledge gaps, there is still a need for further research. This research would enable both developers and planners to adequately and appropriately consider future marine renewable energy projects.