CRIMINAL charges could be brought against anyone found to be harassing dolphins or other cetaceans in the Moray Firth.
This warning came as Police Scotland and partner agencies launched a hard hitting poster campaign to encourage people to respect the marine wildlife off our coastline, especially during the busier summer.
Last summer, incidents included private boat operators getting too close to a pod of pilot whales near the Kessock Bridge and a kite surfer allegedly disturbing dolphins feeding at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle.
A number of incidents were reported at the Chanonry viewpoint near Fortrose involving personal boats and kite surfers risking disturbance to dolphins.
Whales, dolphins and porpoises are protected under the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1994.
This includes protection from disturbance either reckless or deliberate, harassment, killing and injury, with offences subject to a fine of up to £5,000.
Wildlife Crime Liaison Officer, Constable Daniel Sutherland said: “We understand that people will want to get a good view of dolphins and other marine life.
“We do not want to discourage this but want to make sure people do so responsibly with respect for the wildlife.
“Last year we received an increase in reports of water users getting far too close to cetaceans, sometimes for a good photo, or because of a lack of awareness surrounding their protection, or sometimes just a complete lack of regard for their safety.
“Today we are launching a poster campaign which we will be placing at prominent entry points to the Moray Firth and harbours which will give advice to all water users about how to avoid disturbance to cetaceans. These will serve to increase awareness as we move through the summer months.”
The posters were funded by Scottish Natural Heritage in consultation with Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
Ben Leyshon of SNH, and board member with the Moray Firth Partnership said: “Whales, dolphins and porpoises are spectacular to watch, but they can easily be disturbed by human activity.
“This can interfere with their breeding and feeding activities. When you’re out on the water it’s important to be aware of how your behaviour will affect them.
“We strongly recommend that anyone watching marine wildlife keep their distance and follow the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code.
“This offers practical guidance for everyone who watches marine wildlife around Scotland, whether they are on the shore or at sea – and will help you stay within the law.
“In the Moray Firth, local tour boats have signed up to the Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code, as well as a local code, to reduce disturbance and protect these special creatures.
“Choose an accredited operator if you want a tour of high quality and low impact, or watch from the shore.”
Alison Rose, Scottish Dolphin Centre manager, said: “Just like dolphins, people love messing about in the water.
“However, these days that can mean using sport and leisure equipment that is fast, heavy and sometimes very loud in the case of jet-skis.
“This can disturb and even be really harmful to dolphins.
“We want everyone to have fun, but it’s important we are all aware that when we’re on the water we’re sharing that space with whales, dolphins and other marine mammals for whom the sea is their home.”