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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A Deadly Sea

Part 1
The North Sea off the north Norfolk coast has suddenly become a very dangerous place; if you are a fish or a sea mammal that is. Over the last few months up to 40 dead and mutilated seals have been washed ashore here, almost all of them on Blakeney Point. Nation Trust wardens have been patrolling every day to collect the carcasses (14 in one 12 day) period. While around 40 have been washed ashore many more are likely to have been swept away to sea where they would have been eaten by birds and fish and crabs. All are mutilated and the injuries are identical in all cases; with a spiral cut from nose to tail, whatever killed the first one killed all the others. The injuries look consistent with something like an Archimedes Screw. While the cause remains a mystery what is certain is that these deaths are not from any natural causes, it has to be a machine of some kind that is doing it.

These fatalities are roughly coincident with the arrival of MV Svanen a 9000 ton self propelled and self maneuvering heavy-duty floating crane which is there to lift and position the monopiles for the 88 turbines being erected for the Sheringham Shoal windfarm. With no other obvious explanation for these deaths all local eyes are now on the vessels and machinery being used.

Norfolk Police are investigating and also the SMRU (Sea Mammal Research Unit) are now involved. The police investigations are ongoing but from their first inspection on site nothing out there seemed to account for the deaths and injuries. However, any inspection carried on the surface must have very limited value. To really get to understand what is going on an organisation with an underwater capability and with engineers that have the knowledge to understand how these injuries might have been inflicted need to be looking at this. Tests need to be carried out, like for example radio tagging  dead seals and taking them to the area where the work is being carried out and over a period of several days being put in and left to drift, where they go and where they wash up would be very significant. If they turn up in the same place as the others then the Svenan or its associated vessels are more likely to be involved, if that does not happen the area of investigation will have to widen. Perhaps to take onboard information from other sites in UK waters (off Scotland & N Ireland) where the similar injuries are occurring.

Before such a massive project like Sheringham Shoal Windfarm could be built you would expect there to have been the most rigorous democratic debate, not just because it has great significance in visual terms-just offshore from an AONB- but because of its likely environmental impacts. The potential for these was looked at most closely for the Scroby Sands wind farm off Yarmouth, with serious thought given to how it might affect marine mammals and birds; the big surprise to everyone when construction began was that the huge pressure impacts from the piling operations ( exceded only by depth charges and large under sea explosions) killed large numbers of fish, any fish in the vicinity of these things that has a swim bladder dies. I think we can all guess what would be attracted to a banquet of dead fish floating around.

This level of environmental damage has apparently been considered acceptable for wind farm construction, but does not sit well with the fact that most fish in the north sea are considered endangered and fishermen who catch just a few boxes more than their quota can be fined thousands of pounds.

The crux of this problem is that Scira, the company constructing Sheringham Shoal, should have been monitoring any impacts the construction is having on wildlife and the environment. A project of this size, the construction of 88 turbines, requires the strictest monitoring of its impacts. This extract from their newsletter suggests that Scira were ‘planning’ do some monitoring.

It says this was to be carried out by observers, using special monitoring equipment. Surely if they have been doing this to the rigorous standards that protected species like seals and porpoises warrant they will know with some certainty that they are not responsible and could demonstrate that fact with data they have collected.  This of course they may yet do.

However, I have tried without success to get this information from Scira. This is one email reply I had from them, the last words are quite telling.

Dear Godfrey,

I have received the following information today, that Scira operates according to the requirements of FEPA licenses as granted by the Marine Management Organisation. This involves marine mammal and bird monitoring amongst other things.

They understand why you are asking and would like to remind you that while this is under investigation by the police, that further questions go through them.

Scira has provided all relevant information to the police and cooperated fully with investigations even though they are not under any suspicion for the mutilation of the seals.

It is fully understood by Scira, the seriousness of this issue and why the police are doing their best to get to the bottom of this without public hindrance.



If you have been moved by this article and would like to do more, you can. Forward this URL to any friends you have who might share your concern, because in the end it may well be the weight of public opinion that determines the outcome of this terrible situation.

Update  24/08/2010.  Followed by Update 30/08/2010.
Since this unfortunate business began I have been offered a number of theories as to why the seals are being injured in this way, some of them probably not too far off the truth, much of it ill thought out nonsense.  For example it seems absurd to suggest that grey seal bulls are responsible; after many years of peaceful co-existence why should grey seal bulls have suddenly and inexplicably gone on a killing spree causing identical injuries in every case? That’s about as likely as whistling is to bring up a wind.
Other theories are scuppered by timing. The theory that fishing boats somehow spin them through between twin outboards or the theory that ships with ducted propellers are responsible are implausible: because they cannot be reconciled with two facts: that the injuries have been concentrated in the last few months; and the fact that if they were caused by random shipping accidents the carcasses would have been washed up randomly all along the coast.
The injuries are of two specific types. The first and earliest occurred around Christmas 2009 and are of the type shown at the top of this blog.  The remainder–on seals that have washed ashore since April-are like that shown above this update. This suggests two sources.
The first set of injuries could be linked to a large vessel associated with the wind farm, which I understand was operating off the coast during that period (until the Svenan arrived).  The second group of injuries do suggest a ducted propeller, but as Wells Harbour Commissioners have said, these devices have been around for a long time; why would they suddenly start killing seals in just one area now? These involve a spiral cut from nose to tail always beginning at the head, if ducted propellers were to blame the seals would be caught up as they swam and enter head first, tail first, or even sideways; their approaches to the blades would be random.
All the seals examined in the second group had entered whatever device killed them headfirst. Why?  There must be an explanation for the initial orientation of the seals before their mutilation.  What could possibly line them up?  I offer my own theory.  As piling operations begin any fish that are stunned or killed by the enormous impacts will drift down tide, seals attracted to them would then swim up into the tide to pick them up, which would orientate all of them in the same direction, toward the source of the fish and possibly toward the instrument that will kill them, sucking them in as they approach head first.
The smaller numbers of seals that have washed up around St Andrew’s Bay confuse the issue and throw a life line to the wind farm companies and those who seeking to protect their operations.  There are clear differences between the injuries that have occurred there and those that occurred here.
Everything I have heard and read recently tends to suggest that a cover up may be beginning, I have been led to believe for example that the tidal stream and wind effect investigations  showed that the wind farms could not be responsible for these seal deaths.  The studies are not yet complete however, and I know from well over fifty years experiance on and in the North Sea that the place where they are being washed ashore is entirely consistent with them being killed north east of Blakeney Harbour. I would rather trust my own judgement in respect of the North Sea than that of a landbased expert.
Since this blog was first posted no more seals have been washed up.  Before that they were coming ashore regularly.  Is this another coincidence?  The Svenan and all the other equipment working out there should have been thoroughly examined under the waterline during the very first inspection, not by the police who have neither the resources nor expertise to carry out such work, but by an organisation that was fully qualified to undertake it.  This did not and as far as I know has not happened.  The Svenan left the area for Yarmouth shortly after this hit the press and has just returned. I fear that now the injuries have ceased it may be too late to ever really know what caused them.

Update 30/08/2010
 On Friday our local BBC TV News carried the latest item on the seal deaths, in an interview with Dr Dave Thompson who is leading the investigation for the SMRU, it emerged that they now know with some certainty that the seals are being killed by a ducted propeller, and to use his words ‘are being drawn in head first as they search for food’ they are now looking for the boat responsible.
My guess from the use of the words ‘searching’ and ‘ boat’ is that they are trying to pin it on a fishing boat.  What I expect they will say is that as trawlers or other fishing vessels bring in their nets, fish spill out and then the seals that are attracted to them get sucked into their ducted propellers.
I have checked with the local fishermen’s association and have been assured that no trawlers (the main users of ducted propellers) fish this area in summer. There is apparently one exception and that is working for a wind farm. In any case as I have said trawlers and other fishing vessels have been operating here for many years. Why have we only had these seal deaths here over the last four-month period?
The explanation SMRU eventually come up with will have to fit all the facts, if their explanation puts the blame on fishing boats or other vessels it will fail to do that and therefore potentially fail to stand up to rigorous public scrutiny; but how rigorous will the scrutiny be? I doubt very much that the BBC or EDP with their pro-wind farms stance will ask any of these difficult questions.

Update 19/08/2010
Since this last blog was posted the situation has come under close investigation by a number of agencies, the aforementioned police and Sea Mammal Research Unit have been joined by the RSPCA and MMO (Marine Management Agency) who have overall responsibility for monitoring conditions and for conducting this investigation.

The corkscrew injuries inflicted on the seals are consistent with a particular type of propulsion/manoeuvring system know as a Kort Nozzle. The only place in the near North Sea where such devices are employed is Sheringham Shoal Wind Farm. This coincidence means that Scira, the company doing the work, should not be surprised if people like me who know little of their modus operandi are suspicious.

What this coincidence demands is a thorough investigation of the equipment and operating procedures being used to construct this wind farm. If such an investigation ultimately proves beyond question that they are not responsible then the investigation can look to the wider area for an explanation.

The important question that has to be asked now is what would happen if any of the vessels involved in the construction of Sheringham Shoal wind farm are found to have been responsible for the deaths of the seals, because this is a massive operation that almost certainly would/could not be stopped at this stage.

If it were me out there doing something to endanger/ kill protected species I would be prosecuted under the relevant wildlife legislation, and be fined or possibly sent to prison. However, it is not me out there, it is a massive group of international companies with enormous resources who are seen by many, including some in the prosecuting authority, to be saving the planet.

What usually happens in this country in this kind of situation is that there would be a pragmatic decision to balance off these deaths against the greater good (as with the fish) that wind farms are supposed to represent. This of course is not a decision that would sit well with most of the public, so the temptation for those in authority to blur the outcome is very real.

I can see the press release now.

'After a thorough and exhaustive investigation by MMO, the Sea Mammal Research Unit and the Police, no evidence to implicate wind farm construction in the recent deaths of seals on the Norfolk coast has been found. The cause of these deaths remains inexplicable.'

This is too important to remain unresolved, the cause, whatever it is, must be found. If you belong to a wildlife organsisation please do whatever you can to persuade them to put pressure on the investigating teams to come up with a definitive answer to this mystery.