Saturday, 21 August 2010

MoD bomb disposal harming Gibraltar marine life

Guardian reports:-
"The Ministry of Defence is at the centre of a conservation storm after reportedly destroying marine life and threatening the habitat of endangered birds by blowing up old ordnance off the coast of Gibraltar.

Protesters say the "wanton and destructive" blasts, carried out in a designated UK-Gibraltar SCI (Site of Community Importance) left hundreds of dead fish floating on the sea's surface. "Thousands of marine animals are likely to have been killed and left to rot on the seabed," they said.

The campaigners called on military chiefs to stop the work immediately. They warned that such acts would not be tolerated by the people of Gibraltar and condemned the destruction as "the rape of Gibraltar's waters".

The controversy follows underwater detonations earlier this month when the MoD, which has a naval base and military garrison on the Rock, disposed of unexploded munitions and time-expired military ammunition.

It claimed it has permission under a 1998 agreement with the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society (GONHS) to use an area off Governor's beach, east of the Rock, to safely dispose of unwanted ordnance, including unexploded shells dredged up during construction work around the harbour.

It used "thunderflash" prior to the blasts to scare away fish, but said it was inevitable and unavoidable that some would be killed.

The GONHS told the Guardian, however, that while it had reluctantly accepted some detonations for the purposes of essential training in the 1990s, no written agreement was ever signed.

Since then the site had become part of the Southern Waters of Gibraltar SCI under the European commission habitats directive and part of the Estrecho Oriental Spanish SCI controversially declared by Spain. Any understanding reached 12 years ago would no longer apply, said the society.

The site was also important to one of the last mainland Iberian populations of the threatened western Mediterranean shag. There are fears that explosions, if carried out when the birds are fishing, could kill them.

"The MoD agreed to the UK-Gibraltar site designation and so should know that such activities would require an appropriate assessment," said Dr John Cortes, general secretary of the GONHS. "It appears also that the detonation was not an exercise, and therefore not essential training".

The Gibraltar Federation of Sea Anglers (GFSA) said the detonations took place less than 200 metres from the shore and killed valuable catch including bream and sea bass.

The explosions were so strong that one federation member, in a boat 200 metres away "felt the shockwaves". British military personnel were seen collecting the dead fish with a net.

"At a time when public opinion is behind a campaign to regulate and control fishing and protect the marine environment, British forces personnel have shown that they have no respect for or any regard for public opinion," said the federation.

Mario Ramos, former chairman of the GFSA who sits on the Angling for Change committee which is campaigning for the Gibraltarian government to introduce marine conservation legislation, said one of their members had captured it on his mobile phone and had caught over 400 dead fish floating.

"And it's not just the hundreds of fish that were floating on the surface. The fact is the sea bed is being completely demolished. Every living thing on the bottom, whether it's octopus, crabs, flat fish, shrimps, thousands of marine animals, it's all blasted.

"Gibraltar has got a very limited shoreline. The last thing we want to do is be blasting our own coastline," he said.

Such explosions were frequent in the 1980s and early 1990s. Concerns were voiced at regular meetings between the local community and the military through the "MoD Conservation Group". As a result, the MoD agreed to reduce them to an absolute minimum, and to use a maximum charge of just 2.2kg.

There was then a "marked decrease" in explosions, said Dr Cortes. "We were still not happy, and the matter did remain on our own agenda". However, the MoD then disbanded the conservation group.

There had been no explosions in recent years, he added, until the events of a few weeks ago.

The MoD said in a statement: "Given the construction work around the harbour, it is not unusual for unexploded munitions to be uncovered. These munitions must be expertly removed and safely disposed of, along with time-expired military ammunition.

"In a 1998 agreement between the Ministry of Defence and the Gibraltar Ornithology and Natural History Society, an area off Governor's beach to the east of the Rock was identified as being the safest area for these necessary explosive disposals."

A spokesman said that the MoD was in talks with the government of Gibraltar over the SCI designation. "We are aware of this [SCI] designation and are in discussion with the government. However, we only have one site designated within the waters off Gibraltar where we are able to destroy ordnance, so in order to carry out controlled explosions without unnecessarily risking lives we continue to use the area as designated by the government of Gibraltar for such use."