The population of bottlenose dolphins in the Moray Firth has has stabilised but remains vulnerable, according to experts.
Around 200 dolphins call the North Sea home, with more than half frequently using the Moray Firth – part of which is an EU-classified Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to help protect the marine mammals.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) said the group is the most northern resident bottlenose dolphin population in the world and generates around £4million per year for the local economy through tourism.
Researchers at Aberdeen University found there is some variability in the numbers of dolphins using the Moray Firth SAC each year, but it appears generally stable over the long term.
Monitoring suggested dolphins use the SAC outside the summer months more often than was previously thought and that there has been an overall increase in dolphin numbers on the east coast.
Morven Carruthers, SNH marine policy and advice officer, said: “This is great news for the dolphins and for Scotland in general. We have been monitoring dolphins in the Moray Firth SAC for many years and it’s been wonderful to see stability in their numbers.
“Dolphin watching is a beloved activity for locals and visitors alike throughout Scotland. It’s great to see a growing bottlenose dolphin population on the east coast.”
Despite these results, SNH said the population – which stretches from the Moray Firth to Fife and further south – is still “considered to be vulnerable” as it relatively small, and dolphins reproduce slowly. The study warns that while many of the dolphins travel along the coast between the different areas, the population remains isolated.