A HIGHLAND businessman has cautioned against allowing ship-to-ship (STS) oil transfers in the Cromarty Firth and warned that the whole eco-tourism industry in the area would be “threatened with extinction” in the event of a spill.

Gwyn Tanner’s remarks came as controversy continues to mount over the plan by Cromarty Firth Port Authority (CFPA) to allow the transfers in an area rich with shellfish stock and wildlife including bottlenose dolphins, porpoise and seals.

A CFPA spokeswoman person said it shared local concerns and was well aware of its responsibilities for the marine environment.

“We have taken expert advice which said the chance of an oil spill was highly unlikely,” she said. “Ship-to-ship transfers are carried out all over the world and I am sure that to date there has not been a spill.”

However, a cursory internet search revealed that earlier this month there was a crude spill during an STS transfer at Port Kavkaz, Russia; in January, a spill was reported in the Prirazlomnoye oilfield in the Barents Sea; in June 2015, a spill was recorded at the Welland Canal, Ontario; and in April last year, there was a spill in English Bay, Vancouver.

Tanner, a former fisherman, runs Dolphin Trips Avoch, using the Corbiere – a 24ft shallow-draft Dory with a waterjet engine. It is designed for wildlife watching and has no propellers or moving parts underneath.

His prime target was the Scottish Tourism Alliance (STA) whose national strategy delivery coordinator Caroline Warburton told local councillor Craig Fraser that she was “unaware of the situation”.

She wrote in an email: “In general, we do not tend to comment on issues such as these. I will, however, look over the information you have provided and speak to our key members in the region to find out their thoughts on the situation.”

Fraser replied that he was astonished the organisation was not aware of the application, and added: “If this application is allowed to proceed and there happened to be an oil pollution incident, it would have a devastating effect on the Cromarty and Moray Firth communities and businesses that rely on eco-tourism.”

When Tanner was made aware of the email, he said: “This is totally the wrong attitude when the whole eco-tourism industry in the Inner Moray Firth area is threatened by extinction should an oil spill happen."

Ships would be ships transferring oil at a rate of one tonne per second, Tanner said, and there was also the chance of indiscriminate dumping of ballast waste, which was just as damaging to the eco-system, he claimed.

He went on: “This alone could wipe out our shellfish stocks such as prawn, lobster, brown crab, velvet crab mussels, winkles and dog whelk. Then of course there are the bottlenose dolphins, porpoise and seals.

“I think the Scottish Tourism Alliance must comment on this and support the tourist industry in putting a stop to this underhand application – or close its doors and find another line of work.”

Tanner told The National: “Everybody’s speaking about an ebb tide. If a spill happened in a flood tide, that oil would go as far as the mouth of the Beauly River, especially on a spring tide. It would rip straight in.

“That’s if they have an oil spill, but what they will have is indiscriminate dumping of ballast water. Where that water came out of could be anywhere in the world – and that’s what could wipe out all our shellfish because they are bottom feeders and it’s so shallow up there.”

Duncan Bowers, another opponent of the application, highlighted the impact report on the grounding of the MV Braer, which released 85,000 tonnes of light crude when it broke up off Shetland in 1993.

“The report found tourism was affected for seven years with direct losses of £18.2 million, mainly as a result of public perception and reputation damage,” he wrote. "It also shows extensive effects on salmon farming, which was impacted for one year, and seafood, which is known to have been impacted for up to three years.

“The Cromarty Firth application is for internationally based vessels holding 180,000 tonnes of medium crude oil, more than double MV Braer volumes. The medium crude oil, originating in Russia and Baltic States, is much more persistent than light crude oil. Oil spills will be significantly more difficult to deal with than MV Braer and have longer-term impacts for stakeholders.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Tourism Alliance said: “We have received correspondence over the past week on the Cromarty Firth oil transfer licence application, however this is not an issue that the STA can comment on at the moment.”