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Joanna Lumley urges PM to stop detonation of bombs that deafen whales

Joanna Lumley has urged Boris Johnson to stop the “needless” detonation of wartime bombs at sea because it can cause deafness and even death in vulnerable whales and dolphins.

In a letter to the prime minister and his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, who is a conservationist and animal welfare campaigner, the actor describes underwater explosions used to clear ordinance ahead of windfarm construction in the UK as “truly shocking in scale”, with a “devastating impact” on marine mammals.

Her intervention came after a report last week said that noise pollution in the ocean was being dangerously overlooked.

In the seas around Britain, an estimated 50 detonations are carried out every year, but this figure is likely to increase as a result of the quadrupling of offshore windfarms as part of Johnson’s pledge to power every home using wind energy by 2030.

In her letter, Lumley, who supports the windfarm programme, said she hoped they would both agree it “should not come at the expense of damage to our marine life”.

She cited a 2015 government-funded study that concluded that one of Britain’s largest mass strandings of whales a decade ago was likely caused by offshore bomb disposal.

Lumley said: “The [detonation] technique can lead to mass-stranding events, such as at the Kyle of Durness in Scotland in 2011, where 39 pilot whales were stranded following a nearby munitions disposal. Nineteen of these precious creatures lost their lives despite the heroic efforts of local volunteers.

“I think we owe it to our marine life to do all that we can to prevent such a situation ever happening again – both on our beaches and many miles out at sea.”

Last year, a German study concluded that eight porpoises were deafened and died in August 2019 as a result of explosions used to clear second world war mines in German protection zones in the Baltic Sea. Autopsies were carried out on 24 of the mammals after 41 were found dead on beaches.

Lumley, who has previously used her profile to campaign for the rights of former Gurkha soldiers to live in the UK, fronts a campaign called Stop Sea Blasts, which is backed by four marine conservation charities and several MPs. A petition calling for an end to the practice has been signed by 100,000 people.

The campaign is calling for windfarm contractors to use an alternative and quieter method of clearing ordinance, called “deflagration”, which has been used by the Royal Navy since 2005. Stop Sea Blasts is funded by Eodex, a company that provides deflagration services, but Lumley works on a voluntary basis, campaigners said.

Deflagration allows a small charge to penetrate the bomb casing without detonating it, which causes the explosive to burn out. Recent tests conducted by the National Physical Laboratory led its scientists to conclude: “The deflagration method shows considerable promise for noise abatement in [bomb] disposal.”

The effect of an underwater explosion can affect marine life in different ways. If close to a blast, the pressure wave can cause physical harm, such as lesions, haemorrhage and decompression sickness. Marine mammals can also suffer pathological damage to their hearing, which renders them unable to navigate, feed or communicate properly. They can also become shocked by the blasts.

“We have made the ocean a more industrialised and polluted environment, and these are species that use sound far more than we do,” said Andrew Brownlow, a marine pathologist and lead author on the 2015 study into the pilot whale strandings in Durness. “If there is technology available that doesn’t explode, then why not use it?”

Military operations in the first and second world wars have left an estimated 100,000 mines and bombs scattered around our coasts, some as large as 600lbs.

Luke Clarke at RenewableUK, the wind industry trade body, said it welcomes the development of new technologies such as deflagration. “The industry is aware of it as a possible option, but it hasn’t been tried and tested when you are finding 500 or 600lb bombs on the seabed,” he said.

He said detonation is only used as a last resort and when it is used, smaller charges are set off to deter marine mammals from the area. “The industry is working on a programme to reduce the environmental impacts of the build, and that is one part of that.”