COMMERCIAL USE OF THE CROMARTY FIRTH
The economic base of the Cromarty Firth has been based largely on the winning, processing and transportation of natural resources. Traditionally this involved agriculture, distilling, fisheries and timber. Latterly it has also been closely tied to oil and gas extraction, mainly through related construction and processing plant and the Nigg Oil Terminal. The Firth is well-placed to service the North Sea oil fields and has played a key role in their development. The build-up of infrastructure and its tying in to the wider national transport network has created a valuable base from which the area is also expected to be able to compete for work in the Atlantic oil fields.
The Highland Region Structure Plan (1990) identifies and promotes three large-scale industrial sites on the shores of the Firth at Evanton, Invergordon/Delny and Nigg. The potential for reclamation of intertidal land for industry was identified at all these sites. Intertidal land at Nigg is also identified by the Government for safeguarding for nationally significant petrochemical development.
There are industrial/business sites at Alness, Dingwall, Dornoch, Tain, Evanton and Invergordon. The Invergordon Enterprise Zone was established by Government following closure of the Aluminium Smelter in 1982. It was the site of development of up to 3-4 ha per annum with some 700 jobs created. The designation expired in 1993. However, a Simplified Planning Zone (SPZ) scheme to replace the attraction to development afforded by the Enterprise Zone, was adopted by the Regional Council, in December 1994, in accordance with the Town and Country Planning (Simplified Planning Zones) (Scotland) Regulations 1987.
The SPZ relates to 52 ha of land in Alness and a further 85 ha at Invergordon and was designated in consultation with a range of interests, including SNH. It includes the granting of planning permission for land reclamation works on inter-tidal land at the port of Invergordon.
The maturity of North Sea oil developments and their existing support infrastructure, combined with the geographical remoteness of the Cromarty Firth from major industry, have raised doubts that any further large scale industry will be established within the Firth. However, the assets of the area - deep water, sheltered anchorage, the availability of flat, developable land and proximity of a labour supply and services - have been attractive to major manufacturing in the past and could still prove attractive to new developments in the future. The potential for the area to play a significant role in the development of oil fields off the north and north-west coasts of Scotland is already being explored. The move towards more efficient use of energy for transporting goods is also likely to mean that quality harbours, particularly those on the east coast facing Europe, could become increasingly attractive nodes for development.
Another form of potential development which could affect the Firth is the production of renewable energy. The Scottish Renewable Energy Study (December 1993) indicated that the Ross and Cromarty (East) area could accommodate 17.2 megawatts of renewable energy, subject to expenditure on reinforcement of the electricity grid system. There are potentially several broad areas around the Cromarty Firth which could satisfy physical requirements and be relatively close to a 33 KV grid line. There are reservations concerning the use of the area for wind power because of the potential conflict with important bird flight routes.
Interest is being shown elsewhere in the production of gas from distillery wastes, which then powers electricity turbines. One central facility would have to serve a wide catchment area, with the "pot ale" being brought in by lorry. It is possible that such a venture could be considered for the Cromarty Firth area - drawing on distilleries at Brora, Edderton, Tain, Invergordon, Alness and Muir of Ord.
The potential for industrial expansion in the Firth is closely related to the potential for industry and commerce to coexist with the internationally important wildlife populations which also rely on the area. The proposed designation of the Firth as a Special Area for Conservation and a Special Protection area under the EC Habitats and Birds Directives has raised concerns that there will be a presumption against such expansion where the interest of European sites will be significantly affected.
In considering the future development of the Cromarty Firth, it will be vital to establish the scale, type and location of development which is compatible with the long-term conservation value of the Firth. At the same time, the commercial success of the Firth will depend on a full recognition of the global markets and technologies within which the economy of the Firth must operate and the need to ensure that the development potential of this vital area of the Highland economy is not unduly prejudiced.
The Cromarty Firth Port has a capability to berth ships of up to 55,000 - 150,000 tonnes deadweight at the Nigg oil terminal - and turns round 250,000 tonnes of bulk and other cargo each year, not counting the considerable crude oil cargoes to and from the Nigg terminal or freight on the ro-ro ferry to Orkney. In 1994, 873 vessels totalling 3,855,160 gross registered tons used the Firth.
Vessels using Cromarty Firth facilities fall into the following categories:-
1) oil rigs, other semi-submersible types, and jack-ups
2) oil related service vessels (anchor handlers, supply boats, sub-sea support vessels, pipe-reeling vessel, crane ships etc)
3) passenger cruise liners
4) ro-ro ferry
5) Nigg Oil Terminal tankers
6) cargo vessels, reefers and short-sea bulk cargo
7) fishing vessels
As of February 1995, 361 rigs had entered the Firth since quiet beginnings in 1978. Passenger cruise liners have now reached around eighteen per year. The ro-ro ferry runs six nights a week between Invergordon and Kirkwall.
Nigg Oil Terminal tankers have increased in number considerably during 1994 and 1995. This is due to the Beatrice traffic being supplemented by incoming shuttle tankers from Kerr McGee's Gryphon Field, and the subsequent re-export of these cargoes. In 1993 13 tankers used the Terminal, in 1994 this rose to 32.
Category 6 vessels remain reasonably constant from year to year importing road salt, fertiliser, pipes, oil related equipment, fishmeal, bunkers, coal, malting barley, malt, shotblast, cut timber, and minor other cargoes. Export cargoes mainly consist of scrap, wheat, seed potatoes, barley and frozen fish. Fishing vessels are occasional users of the Firth - up to fifteen a month in season.
Categories 1 and 2 are diminishing in number as the North Sea fleet slims down. The older oil rigs cannot be economically upgraded to the latest "Cullen" safety standards and are migrating to other oil provinces throughout the world (Gulf of Mexico, South China Sea, West Africa) or even being scrapped. The remaining relatively modern rigs are increasingly busy as demand is starting to equal or exceed supply. It is unlikely, therefore, that previous situations in the Cromarty Firth where as many as seventeen rigs were anchored there simultaneously, will be seen again. As each arriving or departing oil rig is usually accompanied by three anchor handling/supply boats, it is obvious that category 2 vessels are currently diminishing in number.
On the other hand, prospects for growth include the potential addition of a new berth on the Invergordon Service Base, giving a continuous quay frontage of nearly 300m. Amongst many other uses this would become the principal cruise liner berth - a trade the Port Authority are confident will continue to increase. Reclamation and formation of a quay, hardstanding and larger ro-ro facility are also being considered at Invergordon within the existing SPZ.
The extent of the future use of Nigg Oil Terminal by tankers will depend on whether it can attract business from other oil fields as production from Beatrice falls and eventually ceases in 2-3 years' time. BP are currently examining the potential to establish ship-to-ship transfer operations at the terminal and to handle oil from the new fields being opened up west of Shetland such as Foinaven.
The growth of interest in recreational boating could also presents opportunities for the Firth. The Port Authority see potential for marina facilities for up to 70 yachts at Invergordon and 15 yachts at Cromarty Harbour.
FISHERIES AND AQUACULTURE
The following section is based on information supplied by the Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department and the Alness and Conon District Salmon Fishery Boards.
Currently there are no significant demersal fisheries in the Cromarty Firth. Similarly no significant fishing for pelagic species takes place, with herring and sprat fishing presently banned in order to conserve the stock. As is the case with many coastal and rural areas, there will be limited local fisheries such as hand collection of shellfish and occasional, almost recreational, creeling and rod and line fishing. Such activity is unrecorded in official statistics.
The following shellfish interests are present-
a) There are registered farms for Pacific oysters in Udale Bay and Cromarty Bay. The area is classified as a commercial harvesting area for bivalve molluscs under EC directive 91/492/EEC.
b) There is currently interest in the exploitation of cockles in Nigg Bay.
c) Razor fish and surf clams are exploited on Navity Bank.
d) A small quantity of Norway lobsters are taken from the Cromarty Firth each year.
There are two salmon farms, one trout farm and two salmonid hatcheries in, or adjacent to, the Cromarty Firth.
Interests in the wild salmon stocks of the Cromarty Firth and its tributaries are represented by the Alness and Conon District Salmon Fishery Boards, which have a statutory responsibility for the protection and improvement of Atlantic salmon and sea trout in their district. The Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory, Pitlochry undertakes research in support of these aims as they apply to all District Salmon Fishery Boards. Supervision of the management of salmon and other freshwater fisheries is undertaken by the Scottish Office Agriculture and Fisheries Department (SOAFD) Inspector of Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries.
The main concerns of the District Salmon Fisheries Boards in the Cromarty Firth are salmon poaching, water quality, predation and obstacles hindering migration. Concerns have also been expressed that dredging or marine construction works may also affect salmon migratory behaviour. From June to September, the Boards run constant patrols, both shore and sea based, in an effort to pick up illegal nets. On average some 15 nets per annum are uplifted and one or two arrests made.
Aquaculture faces an uncertain future both in terms of markets and changing technology. It can be expected that there will continue to be issues arising for the Firth with respect to the location and/or relocation of fish farms. There is likely to be increasing interest in the harvesting and management of a range of shellfish species in the Firth, particularly in the light of a strong market in Europe and growing consumer interest at home in what is essentially a luxury product.
Net salmon catches within the Firth have collapsed dramatically, although the river catches have not been so badly affected. This has led to one school of thought that the traditional migration route has altered, perhaps due to some form of deterioration in water quality, or possibly obstructions that may have changed the strength of the current. Any form of pollution that could endanger or upset the homing instinct of salmon and sea trout is seen as the Board's greatest concern. The build-up of seal numbers in the Firth over the last 20 years is also causing concern to fishermen.