DIVERS are calling for an investigation into Scottish Natural Heritage's use of public money, amid claims it is allowing scallop dredgers to destroy parts of the marine environment.

The British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) is to askAudit Scotland to investigate SNH's decision to spend pounds-100,000 on research into the effects of dredging in the Firth of Lorne, one of Scotland's most important marine habitats and a special area of conservation (SAC).

The club claims the damage caused by the fishing practice has already been proven by a wide body of research conducted across the world.

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Andrew MacLeod, BSAC chief environmental officer, said the study would delay muchneeded action to ban scallop dredgers in the area, which is only four by 10 miles. In England and Wales, the practice has been banned or limited in SACs on the advice of English Nature, SNH's counterpart.

"Why does SNH want to spend all this money looking into whether or not scallop dredging damages the marine environment when the damage it causes is already proven?"

Mr MacLeod said.

"We will ask Audit Scotland to look at whether this research represents value for money - my personal view is that it is a waste of public funds."

BSAC has already submitted a complaint to the European Commission about SNH's refusal to recommend a ban of scallop dredgers, which represent 5-per cent of the UK fishing f leet.

The club claims this failure contradicts the EC's habitats directive. A separate complaint to Europe on the issue has been made by the Hebridean Partnership. Mark Carter, chairman, said: "The damage scallop dredgers do is colossal.

We are on the management committee for the Firth of Lorne SAC and everyone in that committee said we should ban scallop dredgers in this tiny area - apart from SNH and the scallop dredgers themselves."

Scallop dredgers drag heavy steel-toothed bars and chains across the seabed and BSAC claims they have evidence that the machinery kills every plant and animal in its path.

The Firth of Lorne was designated as an SAC because of a spectacular underwater mountain range which supports a variety of species, many of which are rare.

They include a starfish called the brittlestar, brown alga, and the southern cup-coral. Divers claim it also used to support a number of highly endangered sea fan anenomes, but that these have now disappeared.

Mr MacLeod said: "The marine environment is a fantastic asset and scallop dredging is destroying vast areas of the sea bed. The economic trade-off for that is benefiting only a very small number of people. It is a highly automated industry with very few employees.

"SNH has taken a very hands-off approach on this issue. I am amazed that an organisation set up to protect the environment has been so ineffective in a case like this."

SNH said no-one was available for comment yesterday.