Britain’s biggest fish is to be used to fight plans for Scotland’s largest offshore wind farm.
The £7 billion scheme is proposed for an area west of the island of Tiree in waters that are a vital mating ground for basking sharks.
Now campaign group No Tiree Array (NTA) wants the seas around the 30 square-mile island to be designated a marine nature reserve for the species to prevent Scottish Power Renewables building between 180 to 300 offshore turbines of up to 200 metres (656ft) high on the site.
The so-called Argyll Array is on hold for 18 months so more information can be gained on its probable impact on wildlife including basking sharks.
Campaigners on the Hebridean island (population, 750), have vowed to fight the development of the gigantic wind farm just three miles from their unspoilt shores.
The west coast of Scotland is one of the best places to see basking sharks; in Gunna Sound, between the isles of Coll and Tiree, four times as many have been recorded for each hour of survey than anywhere else in the UK.
NTA is now writing to Scottish ministers asking for the area to be made a Marine Protected Area, which would mean much greater scrutiny of any planned development for environmental impact.
NTA chairman Robert Trythall, a retired ship broker, said: “Last week I saw in excess of 70 basking sharks. We see so many of them here.
“This is one of the most important areas in the country for them and we want to see the area made a marine nature reserve to protect them.”
The islanders’ case has been strengthened by Scottish Natural Heritage, which believes the area is becoming even more important as a breeding ground for the sharks.
Dr Suzanne Henderson, who is leading SNH’s basking shark tagging project, said: “There are large numbers of sharks in these areas. Some are monsters, over eight or nine metres [26-29∫ft] in length.
“So far the highest populations we’ve seen are around Coll and Tiree – with high populations also around Canna and Garb Sgeir.
“Not only are these areas with the highest populations but also courtship-like behaviour such as breaching the water, parallel swimming or nose-to-tail swimming takes place. This is the first time we have seen the sharks jump out of the water. It seems to only occur in these areas and we don’t know why they’re doing it. We think this area is very important.”
NTA has urged people to report basking shark sightings to the Shark Trust. Trythall added: “This is a real David and Goliath situation, but we have to take a stand against possible irreversible damage to the island and its community.
“Unless a brake is put upon wind-farm development in Scotland, both offshore, inshore and onshore, Scotland’s priceless heritage of wonderful land and seascapes will be lost forever.”
Scottish Power Renewables, owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, is planning to develop the massive wind-farm, which will cover an area three times the size of Tiree. It will provide 1,800 megawatts of energy – enough to power up to one million households – and would go a long way towards meeting Scottish Government targets for renewable energy.
But SPR revealed in April that its planning application would not be submitted until the second half of 2014. The delay means that if approved, the wind farm, which would be one of the largest in Europe, cannot be completed until 2020.
The basking shark disappeared from Britain’s seas at the start of the 20th century but came back in the 1930s in such numbers that the then Scottish Office ordered the deliberate ramming of the species to control its numbers. Numbers have fluctuated ever since but are now believed to be rising, partly because of global warming and raised sea temperatures off Scotland.
The filter-feeding sharks can live for 50 years and can weigh up to seven tonnes and usually grow to more than the length of a double-decker bus. The largest recorded was around 12 metres (40ft) long, and caught off Canada in 1851.
However, they are particularly at risk during courtship, when two or more sharks swim along nose-to-tail or in contact with each other, in a trance-like state.
They are most often seen in coastal areas in the summer and autumn when the plankton they feed on are abundant near the sea’s surface. The species gets its name from apparently “basking” at the surface in calm, sunny weather.
A ScottishPower spokesman said it was carrying out comprehensive surveys in the area to better understand the movements and numbers of a variety of species. “This work is necessary for any proposed development and we’re happy to add to the growing information base particularly around basking sharks,” he added.
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