CONSERVATIONISTS warned that the Scottish Government's decision to ban scallop dredging in a Highland loch does not go far enough to safeguard vulnerable species.

Ministers have named flame shell beds in Loch Carron as a Marine Protected Area after an endangered reef was damaged by intensive fishing earlier this year.

The urgent Marine Conservation Order was put in place banning mobile gear fisheries, such as dredgers, from the the area in Wester Ross, following an investigation into claims the beds had been devastated by scallop dredging.

However, local marine biologist Sue Scott, who raised the alarm after divers uncovered the damage to the reef, said that protection should be extended across a wide area of Scotland's coastline.

She said:"I'm very pleased to see that the government has brought in the protection area. It is a good start, but we would really like to see is scallop dredging banned from inshore waters, ideally to a distance of three miles from the coast.

"It is a hugely destructive practice which targets an area where a host of young fish and shell fish make their homes and these nursery area have little chance to recover.

"Scallop dredging is just so incredibly destructive to the seabed. It is like a plough digging furrows on land."

Ms Scott added that she is not opposed to scallop fishing, but only if it is done in a sustainable manner.

The scientists said: "I will order scallops in a restaurant, but I'll check first to see if they were hand-dived or dredged, and I won;t eat them if they were dredged.

"It is an industry which is acting against itself because it destroys the very areas where the young of the species they catch thrive."

Dr Richard Luxmoore, Senior Nature Conservation Adviser said: “We welcome the rapid action taken by the Scottish Government to protect the flame shell beds of Loch Carron from further destruction by scallop dredging.

"We now call on them to give further consideration to the benefits of stopping destructive fishing practices in all our inshore waters within three nautical miles. There is good evidence that this would deliver long term economic benefit, as well as helping our marine life to recover and thrive."

A Scottish Government investigation found that the damage to the reef was consistent with dredging, which was legal in the loch before the ban.

It also found it is possible for the damaged beds to recover as part had survived and another nearby bed remained intact.

Flame shells - bivalve molluscs with a fringe of orange tentacles - build nests from shells, stones and other materials, and live completely hidden inside them on the seabed.

Hundreds of nests can combine to make a dense bed, which supports myriad other species, including young fish and scallop spat.

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: "We take our duty to protect Scotland's rich marine environment extremely seriously and recognise the importance of safeguarding vulnerable habitats like flame shell beds.

"By introducing a Marine Protected Area and putting in place a ban on dredging we hope to ensure the recovery of the flame shell beds in Loch Carron.

"While we recognise there are concerns around scallop dredging in coastal waters, we must balance environmental concerns with the need for legitimate and sustainable fishing.

"The Scottish Government will now begin work immediately to identify if there are other areas which should be protected."

Conservation charity WWF Scotland welcomed the move to prevent further damage to the seabed.

The charity's acting director Sam Gardner said: "This recent incident clearly shows the importance of completing the Marine Protected Area network and ensuring the jewels of Scotland's seas are there for future generations to enjoy."

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