AN immediate ban on all forms of dredging in an area off the West Highlands has been imposed by the Scottish Government.
An urgent Marine Conservation Order (MCO) has been brought in to safeguard fragile ecosystems of a seabed off Wester Ross, after evidence emerged of a scallop dredger towing in a protected area, which is home to delicate maerl beds.
This fragile underwater feature of coral-like seaweed is a nursery habitat for young scallops as well as other juvenile fish and shellfish.
The move comes after concerned members of the local community photographed and reported a breach of voluntary arrangements for fishing in the area, which have been in place since the site was designated a Marine Protected Area (MPA) last year.
The ban includes Loch Ewe and around the Summer Isles.
Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: “It’s very disappointing that a scallop dredger has breached the voluntary fishery management measures in this MPA which is considered vital to the recovery of maerl beds.
“The seabed shows signs of damage consistent with a pass of scallop dredging gear. Maerl beds can take centuries to grow back and further risk of damage to these precious habitats cannot be allowed.
“The evidence in this case has left me with no choice but to close the Wester Ross MPA to dredging now, instead of waiting until November as planned.
“This emergency conservation order will not affect other fishing activity in the Wester Ross MPA, including hand diving for scallops.”
Overall, these fisheries are worth around £2 million per year, mostly to the local community, and much of this will remain unaffected, he added.