12 November 2002
Scotland's only colony of bottlenose dolphins is becoming increasingly aggressive towards humans and marine mammals because a shortage of fish is forcing the animals into a fight for survival.
Scientists studying the normally placid creatures in the Moray Firth have reported being bitten by the dolphins, which are desperate to find food after the halving of stocks of cod and other fish.
Professor Monty Priede, of Aberdeen University, has studied the dolphins for 10 years. He said he had never seen them so vicious – they are now fighting with other species for food, killing a record number of harbour porpoises.
"The population of cod in the North Sea has fallen by half, and that takes away the dolphins' main source of food. It is mainly due to fishermen catching huge amounts of fish, so the dolphins are searching for other forms of food," he said.
Researchers who have been following the movements of the Moray Firth dolphins have been shocked when the animals, which usually feed on cod, haddock, salmon, herring, squid and whiting – which are under threat – have acted aggressively towards humans.
"The creatures have a reputation for being cute and cuddly but they do have very sharp teeth that can cause damage," said Professor Priede. "Researchers have reported several injuries where the creatures have bitten them. They are predators and when they are hungry they will feast on what they can find. We also have discovered porpoises and other sea life that have been attacked by the sharp teeth of a dolphin in a fight."
Researchers at Aberdeen University believe the bottlenose dolphins are abandoning their home in large numbers to fight starvation. About a quarter of Scotland's 130-strong colony of resident dolphins are thought to have left the Moray Firth, with sightings as far south as Lancashire in the west and the Forth in the east.
This week, Aberdeen University will be launching a three-year project to monitor the dolphins as they extend their search for food."This particular group of dolphins, which have lived in the Moray Firth area for some time, are very unusual. They had lived there for many years and had been communicating with each other and built up a special bond," said Professor Priede.
The bottlenose dolphins live in colder waters than any other dolphins and are the most northerly colony on Earth. They attract thousands of tourists a year to the north-east of Scotland, which helps to bring in almost £750,000 for the local economy.
Meanwhile, the European Fisheries Commissioner, Franz Fischler, raised hopes for the Scottish fishing industry yesterday that it may escape a total ban on catching cod in the North Sea. He hinted that it may be able to carry on at a limited level, with drastic cuts in allowable catches and strict monitoring of boats. Three weeks ago the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea called for a complete moratorium.