Distribution of small cetaceans within a candidate Special Area of Conservation; implications for management

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Gordon D. Hastie
Tim R. Barton
Kate Grellier
Philip S. Hammond
Rene J. Swift
Paul M. Thompson
Ben Wilson


Information on cetacean distribution plays an important role in the identification of suitable boundaries for marine protected areas, but is also crucial for developing management and monitoring programmes. In response to the European ‘Habitats Directive’, a candidate Special Area of Conservation (cSAC) has been established in the Moray Firth, northeast Scotland to protect a small and isolated population of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Limited data on the distribution of bottlenose dolphins and on temporal changes in distribution have recently constrained attempts to mitigate against the impacts of new developments upon this population. In response to the need for current information on the distribution of dolphins throughout the cSAC, this study aims to provide data on the distribution of dolphins and other small cetaceans throughout the Moray Firth. Changes in the distribution patterns of dolphins in the inner Moray Firth were examined using data collected between 1990 and 2000. In addition, combined passive acoustic and visual survey techniques were used to determine the distribution of dolphins and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) on a broader scale across the whole Moray Firth. Dolphin schools were distributed throughout the inner Moray Firth, but there were concentrations of sightings around three deep, narrow channels that were consistent over the ten year study period. Results from surveys across the whole of the Moray Firth showed that all sightings and acoustic detections of dolphins were made within the area of the cSAC. In contrast, porpoise sightings were widely distributed throughout the Moray Firth. The median encounter rate of porpoises across the whole Moray Firth was 1.69 per 100km. Encounter rates of porpoises were similar in the outer Moray Firth and the cSAC. This combination of distribution studies at differing spatial scales provides a valuable tool for monitoring the distribution of animals and identifying important habitats, and the results of this study have directly supported efforts to manage the cSAC.

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