There are fears around 70 local boats could be hit if the Ministry of Defence (MoD) extends a submarine testing range off Wester Ross, where fishing is banned.

But the MoD is remaining tight-lipped over its plans.

It had been thought there could be moves to double the area of the range, but some now fear it could be quadrupled.

The British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (Butec) works in an area of sea in the Inner Sound between the Island of Raasay and the Applecross Peninsula on the mainland. It is used to evaluate the sensors and aural emissions of British submarines and is operated on behalf of the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence by QinetiQ. During the 1970s the range was used to test torpedoes.

Fising is currently banned in the range over an area six miles by three miles and to a depth of 656ft 200m deep. But the MoD wants to significantly increase it.

Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross believes that there are plans to increase the BUTEC range to four times its present size.

Following a series of meetings with local fishermen between Gairloch, Shieldaig and Loch Kishorn, the local MSP said he understood that the pre-election 'purdah period' (when government is banned from announcing new initiatives) was being used to hide plans to consult in June on a total exclusion zone in the Inner Sound.

He said,

"Local fishermen have calculated that around 70 small fishing craft could be affected. That could involve the livelihoods of over a hundred local people and their families both on the Ross-shire coast and Skye if the torpedo testing range is extended, even to double the size at present.

"The coast of Wester Ross is a real success story for sustainable and environmentally friendly fishing. Entire communities thrive as a result of it."

He said it was clear that nobody in the MoD had taken how vital the industry is to the area into consideration before drawing up its proposals.

He had been speaking to fishermen about the impact of a ban on lobsters, scallops and langoustines.

"They assure me that winter and spring fishing is essential to make their livelihoods and access to the parts of the Inner Sound today already puts pressure on boats from Kyle all the way to Portree and Gairloch.

But an MoD spokeswoman said that while she was limited in what she could say during the purdah period, the position had not changed since the MoD's last statement.

Consultation with local sea-users regarding the proposed expansion of the protected area was due to begin in June as part of the MoD Byelaw Review, but no final decisions would be made before then.