SCOTLAND’S decimated herring fleet could be set for a resurgence after a massive new spawning ground for the fish was discovered off the west coast.

The ground, thought to be around 1.16 square miles was discovered near Gairloch by scallop divers who operate in the area.

Scientists from Marine Scotland are now examining egg samples from the site to try to identify their genetics.

But it is hoped the find will help restore herring stocks which were wiped out by overfishing in the 1960s and 70s.

Diver Alex Cameron was one of the first to discover the site.

He said: “It’s just as if there’s been a hail storm through it and there is loads of hail on the sea bed floor, obviously with the hail being the herring eggs. The whole place is absolutely covered.

“It was pretty amazing, yeah. I have never come across anything like that.”

The newly discovered herring spawning site is south west of Gairloch village at a point where the Inner Sound meets the Minch.

It straddles a marine area which is closed to dredging boats and there are now calls for that protection to be extended across the whole spawning ground. The concern is that gear dragged along the sea bed would damage the eggs when they are at their most vulnerable.

Efforts have been under way for several years to “rediscover” wild herring around Gairloch.

A local project was aiming to document the history of the industry which dominated north west coastal communities for centuries.

But the Wester Ross Fisheries Trust, which was behind the project, now hopes the new discovery could elevate herring out of the history books.

Sue Pomeroy from the trust said: “I’m surprised and excited because herring stocks have fallen since the 1970s. The odd herring in spawn had been found but nothing this size. Both Ullapool and Gairloch were founded on the herring industry - it was the keystone subsistence for the people who lived here. “Then in the 1920s to the 1950s the fishermen were raking it in, absolutely raking it in. Families and the whole community relied very heavily on the herring industry. Basically, they went out and fished and fished and fished and caught more and more and more”.

The “silver darlings of the sea” were once so plentiful that the Government gave a bounty of £3 per ton to owners of herring boats larger than 60 tons in the early 19th century.

This, coupled with the coming of the railways as a means of more rapid transport, gave an opportunity to fishermen and agents to deliver their catches to markets much more quickly than in the past.

Boats followed the shoals around the coast of Britain and, along with them there followed an army of curers, merchants, general hands - and the herring girls.

The girls began gutting and packing the silver darlings at the age of 15, and travelled throughout the season from Stornoway to Lerwick, to Peterhead, and as far south as Great Yarmouth.

It takes about 10 days for the eggs to hatch in water temperatures experienced in the Minch.

The process appears to have already begun with signs that egg numbers are diminishing.

There are other spawning grounds off Scotland with a large one near Cape Wrath on the north coast.

Local skipper Alasdair Hughson said: “It’s a fantastic thing to have found. Not only have we proved now that this area is for certain a herring spawning ground. We’ve also seen ... how important the sea bed is. It would be a fantastic opportunity for the future if, and I do say if, there are signs of a recovery here. It’s just hard to describe how important it could be for the future of fisheries in an area like this.

“Gairloch probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the herring, like many other ports along the west, north and east coast of Scotland.”