A seabed exploration took place in the seas of Wester Ross last weekend (8 and 9 November) for one of Scotland’s hidden treasures, an unusual, hard seaweed known as maerl.
The survey, which was initiated by members of the local community, attempted to capture video footage of beds of maerl and other habitats within the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the North West Highlands. The search used specialist underwater camera equipment provided by Scottish Natural Heritage, which was funded by Marine Scotland.
The MPA was created earlier this year for the protection of important habitats including the coral–like maerl, lush forests of kelp and beautiful flame shells. Although a number of beds of maerl have already been mapped in the area, there are still stretches of suitable coastline where maerl would be expected that have not yet been surveyed.
In good condition, maerl forms extensive purple-pink carpets on the seabed, creating the ideal habitat for marine life such as young cod, scallops, and crabs to develop. It is extremely vulnerable to damage, particularly from bottom-towed fishing gear, and its very slow growth means that any restoration takes many decades.
It is hoped that the survey, carried out with the support of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Fauna & Flora International, will collect important information on the extent and condition of the protected habitat to help inform the future management of the site.
Living Seas Policy Officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Alex Kinninmonth, said: “There’s a mixture of reports from locals and expert scientific judgements suggesting that there are spots within the MPA where maerl should be present, so we’re grateful to Scottish Natural Heritage for helping us to gather some hard evidence.
“Surveys like this are enormously valuable for marine nature conservation. If we can fill the gaps in our knowledge then better decisions on the management of Scotland’s vitally important marine habitats can be made.
“With a consultation on how the MPA will be managed due to get underway, we hope the survey can provide important information to help the local community when they engage in that process as they played such a large part in getting the MPA designated in the first place.”