A CONTROVERSIAL fish farm planned for a protected loch faces being sunk after one of Scotland’s rarest plants was found on the sea bed. 
The huge Sound of Jura development would contain a dozen circular cages capable of hosting around one million fish, mainly rainbow trout.
But plan is facing unprecedented opposition amid a widespread industry crisis over sea lice infestation and the use of chemicals.
Now local campaigners hope the site will be rejected by environmental watchdogs after extremely rare northern sea fans were spotted during an underwater survey.
The plants have the highest level of marine protection and could, along with the critically-endangered common skate, see the project rejected.
The blueprint for a rainbow trout farm in Dounie, just south of Crinan on the mainland, has attracted a wave of criticism from nearby residents, conservationists and watersports enthusiasts.
It will be located just 50m off the shoreline at Dounie, in stretch of the popular Scottish Sea Kayak Trail and the new Argyll Sea Kayak Trail.
It is also within the newly designated Loch Sunart to Sound of Jura Marine Protected Area set out to safeguard rare marine features such as the sea fans and the critically endangered common skate.
Sea lice, chemicals and escaping fish are seen as threats to the species such as porpoises, as well as to wild salmon and trout from a local river.
Family-run Kames Fish Farming Limited have applied to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency seeking a licence before they formally seek planning permission with a decision expected next month.
Now the local community council has written an open letter to KFFL urging them to consider the widespread local opposition to the plans and drop it.
North Knapdale community councillor Lottie Goodlet said: "We are not against fish farms in general but this one is too close to the shore and in a heavily protected area.
"It is above a deep trench where there are common skate, porpoises use the Sound of Jura and thousands of people visit the area every year to enjoy the scenery and wildlife and many local businesses depend on tourism.
"Kames did the minimum environmental survey required of them including some samples of the seabed and two straight line underwater surveys with a remotely operated vehicle near the proposed cage site. 
"The video results were poor and its report says they found no features of conservation concern. 
"However, SNH recognised rare northern sea fans and sponges in the images which they say could be killed by fish farm waste. 
"SEPA asked Kames to do a second biological survey which has been recently completed. 
"Beside the sea fans, Kames' first report also makes no mention of the endangered skate living just a couple of hundred metres offshore, nor the wild salmon, sea trout, common and grey seals, bottlenose dolphins, otters, or porpoises that use the bay, all of which are Scottish Government Marine Priority Features. 
"The Sound of Jura is internationally important for porpoises and has been designated a Special Area for Conservation to give them extra protection."
A pressure group called The Friends of the Sound of Jura has been formed to highlight concerns about the project and protesters claim the giant development could put kayakers at risk by forcing them to navigate turbulent conditions to pass the farm.
Fish farming is worth £1.86 billion a year to the economy and is an important source of employment in rural areas.
The Scottish Government plans to double production of farmed salmon by 2030.
Stuart Cannon, KFF managing director, said the plan was still a long way off being approved and that "sea lice were not nearly the same problem for rainbow trout as salmon".
He added: "We have been in production for 45 years, and are not going to suddenly pollute the whole of the Sound of Jura.
"We do listen to local concerns and if there are sound scientific reasons why it cannot be sited there then we would site it elsewhere.
"We await the decision from SEPA and we will comply with whatever the authorities tell us to do."