Page last updated at 08:02 GMT, Monday, 23 June 2008 09:02 UK

Boat race fuels ecology argument

By Nick Parry
BBC Wales

Dolphin calf off the Pembrokeshire coast. Photo by Adrian Shephard
The waters around Pembrokeshire are home to a variety of dolphin

Can the demands of tourism and conservation be squared?

The Round Britain Power Boat Race is getting ready to leave Pembrokeshire - having arrived there by road due to bad weather - after finding itself embroiled in the latest round in the debate within the county.

Marine charity The Sea Trust says fast moving boats passing through environmentally sensitive areas could kill or maim dolphins and other wildlife.

It also believes the race sends out the wrong message to tourists visiting a corner of Wales where over 180 miles of coastline has National Park status and the off shore islands are designated SSIs (Sites of Scientific Interest).

Friends of the Earth Cymru has gone as far as to demand one of the sponsors, Tesco, withdraws its backing.

But the overnight stop at Milford Haven on Sunday coincides with a week-long maritime festival on the port's waterway.

With tourism estimated to be worth 300m annually to the Pembrokeshire economy others argue such events are needed to provide visitors with a broad range of activities and help raise the profile of the county.

Sea Trust spokesman Cliff Benson lives a stone's throw from Strumble Head looking out over the Irish Sea.

"The boats in the race are going to be travelling at high speeds and we do have concerns there will be a high risk of collision between them and the cetaceans," he says.

"We get pods of up to 1,000 dolphins around here. We have minke whales with calves out there, porpoises, lots of seals, sun fish, possibly turtles and thousands and thousands of breeding birds."

Cliff Benson
Any day of the week there are hundreds of people here because they come to see the wildlife
Cliff Benson, Sea Trust

Ahead of the race, the organisers said they had taken advice when planning the route and the power boats would be spread out up to two miles apart once racing was underway.

"There won't be a great pack of boats," spokesman Ray Bulman said.

"We do bear dolphins and all wildlife in mind and we certainly would not put an event on where we would think we would injure wildlife."

In the event, with the Portsmouth to Milford Haven leg of the race cancelled, and their later than planned departure for Northern Ireland through a different route designed to avoid Wales' most sensitive coastal areas, much of the criticism has been taken onboard, so to speak.

But the Sea Trust's other criticism, which centres on why the race is being run at all, remains.

"We live in the real would and know we can't stop everything and nor would we want to," says Cliff Benson of the Sea Trust.

"But I wonder what message it sends out from the point of view burning fossil fuels unnecessarily.

"It may bring some tourists in, but any day of the week there are hundreds of people here because they come to see the wildlife."

Carnival atmosphere

The power boats arrived by road in Milford Haven half way through the SeaFair festival celebrating the golden jubilee of the town's port authority.

Chief executive Ted Sangster says the authority was "delighted" to host an overnight pit stop which would add to the carnival atmosphere of tall ships, flotillas and shore-side events.

Participants and spectators have arrived from across the UK and Europe and Mr Sangster says there is a balance to be struck between protecting the coastline while at the same time allowing the county's two main industries - tourism and energy - to flourish.

"As a port we are quite proud of the fact that we have been here for 50 years now and it demonstrates exactly how that balance can work," he says.

The port authority has been one of the backers, along with Pembrokeshire Council and the Welsh Assembly Government, of plans for a 100m marina development with new homes, cinema, hotel and possibly a casino just across the estuary at Pembroke Dock.

Martello Quays, as it is called, was granted outline planning permission earlier this year.

The site of the proposed marina at Pembroke Dock
Outline planning consent for the marina site was granted unanimously

Mr Sangster says it would regenerate one of the more "run down" areas of the county and would help the port authority's aim of attracting more international cruise ships to the county.

"It's something that brings genuine new business to Pembrokeshire and something we can to do to support the local economy."

But like similar marina style developments on the Welsh coast there is a suspicion among some that such schemes will do little to benefit existing residents.

"Where they have built a marina in Neyland they are either holiday lets or for weekend tourists with their boats down there," says Harry Goodrick of the town's civic society.

"Really, apart from council tax they don't give a lot of benefit to the local economy.

"The biggest arguments are against the five storey apartments that they are going to build along the break water.

"I think they would be out of the pocket of the ordinary person in Pembroke Dock which is quite a depressed area. I don't think they will be able to afford them."

The chamber of trade is broadly supportive but says the marina could not reverse the town's fortunes alone.

And chairman Chris Morris fears the credit crunch could delay the plans.

"I don't the think the marina would be a vast tourism boost unless it is run alongside other things to increase tourist footfall in the area," he says.

"Marinas don't actually bring tourists - they bring people with more money who can afford an apartment at say 200,000 and have a yacht there.

"I would not like to see the same thing happen here as is starting to happen in Cardiff Bay.

"A lot of people purchased flats there primarily for the buy to let market and can't let them and are in negative equity. The flats are empty."

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