A MULTI-MILLION pound project to upgrade a jetty, which which will house one of the Britain’s newest aircraft carriers was put on hold - to protect breeding eels.
Conservation chiefs ordered the Royal Navy to suspend strengthening work at Victory Jetty claiming the noise could disrupt the eels.
The demand was made by Environment Agency (EA) and has led to a month-long delay on the improvement plan ahead of the arrival of HMS Prince of Wales next year.
Despite the set back, the issue is not anticipated to affect the timescale of the 65,000-tonne warship, the second of her class.
But the situation has flabbergasted retired Vice Admiral Bob Cooling. He said: ‘To hold off a strategic build for an asset as important as an aircraft carrier for some eels seems absolutely absurd unless it’s a highly endangered species.’
The former top officer questioned why conservation chiefs couldn’t have looked at a relocation project for the creatures.
‘Let’s find a pragmatic approach around the problem rather than saying “all stop, there’s a couple of eels swimming around and we cannot disturb them”,’ he said.
‘I imagine staff on the naval base will be frustrated by this situation. While everyone knows conservation of the environment is important there’s got to be a moderation in approach where the priority is to get on and do a strategic build.’
The Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) applied for a marine licence to carry out the work to Sheer and Victory jetties earlier this year to allow the two aircraft carriers to dock at once, the EA said.
However, the EA raised concerns about the assessment by the DIO of the noise impact it could have on marine life and demanded a reassessment took place. This happened on June 15 with the results leading to the setback.
A spokesman said: ‘We worked with the DIO to establish what assessments were needed and, on timely completion of these assessments, we reached agreement.
‘This has enabled the project to proceed while also fulfilling requirements to protect the environment.’
A spokeswoman for the DIO said: ‘We worked closely with the Environment Agency to resolve their concerns and enable us to undertake the vital work necessary for the new HMS Prince of Wales without disturbing wildlife, including eels.
‘The work has started and is expected to be complete prior to the arrival of the aircraft carrier.’
Eel numbers have dwindled in recent years. A spokeswoman for Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust said: ‘European eel populations have suffered drastic declines, and are now a protected species. They have a complex life cycle, which makes them vulnerable to man-made river structures, or activities that hinder their migration.’
The work to upgrade the Victory Jetty is part of a £100m project to improve the naval base and follows a previous major overhaul of the Princess Royal Jetty, which is the home of HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The project saw the formerly-named Middle Slip Jetty upgraded and strengthened to take the vast weight of the 280m-long supercarrier when she is alongside.