The Scottish Wildlife Trust can reveal that a survey in the seas off Wester Ross has discovered new areas of a precious seabed habitat formed by an unusual, coral-like seaweed known as maerl.
The findings, published today (27 November 2014), strengthen the case for large areas of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) to be closed to potentially damaging fishing activity, such as scallop dredging and bottom trawling.
One of Scotland’s hidden treasures, maerl can form extensive purple-pink carpets on the seabed, creating the ideal nursery habitat for marine life including young cod, scallops and crabs. However, maerl is extremely vulnerable to disturbance and as it grows very slowly – around 1mm per year – these beds would take many decades to recover from damage.
Living Seas Policy Officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Alex Kinninmonth, said: “The survey has proved to be very important as current Scottish Government proposals will leave many of these newly discovered maerl beds unprotected from damaging fishing methods like dredging.
“Now that these fragile habitats are on the map they must be included in protection plans.
“It also serves as a reminder that there are still big gaps in our knowledge of the seabed, and so there is a clear need for a more precautionary approach to protecting it.”
The Scottish Wildlife Trust carried out the survey earlier this month in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International and members of the local community. Evidence of maerl beds and other seabed habitats was captured using Marine Scotland funded underwater camera equipment and expertise provided by Scottish Natural Heritage.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust has produced an interactive map of the preliminary survey results. New maerl beds were identified off the coast of the Trust’s Ben Mor Coigach Wildlife Reserve, off Isle Martin, and near the Rhue Lighthouse at the mouth of Loch Broom. Further discoveries increase the known extent of maerl beds along a stretch of coast between Gruinard Bay and Little Loch Broom.
The fragile nature of maerl was also evident, as the survey failed to find previously recorded maerl beds in an area of the Summer Isles that has seen the largest amount of scallop dredging in recent years.
The Wester Ross MPA was created earlier this year for the protection of important seabed habitats including maerl beds, kelp forests and flame shell beds. Under the terms of the protected area, maerl beds in the Wester Ross MPA must be managed to allow for their recovery, as their condition is known to be poor.
The Scottish Government is currently consulting on plans to prohibit fishing activity – including scallop dredging and bottom trawling – on certain seafloor habitats within the Wester Ross MPA and other MPAs in Scottish coastal seas.
In a bid to ensure that MPAs get the management they require, the Scottish Wildlife Trust has joined up with other environmental NGOs in urging the public to tell the Scottish Government – “Don’t Take the P, out of MPAs”. Click here to find out more and to respond to the consultation on MPA management.