THEY were once plentiful all along the coastline until many species were overfished to near extinction.

Now Scotland’s native oyster beds and other shellfish habitats are being revived and are at the highest levels in nearly 200 years.

It comes as the country’s seafood sales hit record levels after huge growth in the shellfish farming industry.

According to new statistics, farmers produced 8,232 tonnes of rope grown mussels last year which is the highest ever recorded.

The industry also produced 5million Pacific oysters for sale, with diners in Paris, London and other European capitals regularly eating Scottish varieties.

Such is the demand, Scottish mussels and oysters are now being half grown in this country before being sent to countries like France and Ireland to be ‘finished’.

The Scottish shellfish farming industry is now estimated to be worth approximately £12.4 million and employs around 350 people.

But while aquaculture is an undoubted success story, the native species are also beginning to thrive again in their traditional beds.

Last year saw oysters return to the Dornoch Firth for the first time in more than 100 years.

Researchers placed 300 oysters from the UK’s only sizeable wild oyster population in Loch Ryan were placed on two sites in the Firth by the Glenmorangie distillery on the banks of the Firth in Tain.

The distillery wants to restore the long-lost oyster reefs to the Firth to work in tandem with a new digestion plant to purify the by-products created through the distillation process and keep the waters clean.

Elsewhere on the Firth’s shoreline, a numbers of oyster farms are producing both Pacific and native oysters to meet consumers demand, leaving the wild species free to grow without being at risk from fishing boats.

Even more remarkably, four years ago live oysters were discovered in the Firth of Forth, more than 50 years after they were declared extinct in the area.

At its peak, the Firth of Forth oyster fishery produced more than 30 million oysters a year and even Charles Darwin went out with the boats from Newhaven while studying in Edinburgh.

Over-harvesting caused the fishery to collapse by 1920, and surveys of the Firth of Forth in 1957 reported that oysters were biologically extinct.

Now it is hoped that even with the huge rise in demand for natural oysters, the wild populations will remain undisturbed from fishing boats and thrive.

Nick Lake of the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers Association said: “Things are going great for us at the moment.

“The great thing too is that the native beds are now starting to replenish again as they recover from overfishing in the past. We could get back to the same levels we had in the mid 1800’s despite the target to grow 21,000 tonnes a year by 2030.

“Our waters are perfect for seafood cultivation and there are many innovative growers all over the country. We provide oysters to Paris, mussels to Belgium and virtually all packed mussels found in supermarkets are from Scotland.

“But one of the most pleasing aspects for us is the number of jobs now being sustained across the country, from Shetland down to the processing plant in Bellshill, all of which will get larger as we move forward.

“Ultimately though, we are only responding to demand. If the consumers didn’t want it then there would be no reason to expand. All along our coastline people want fresh seafood now and it’s very satisfying to meet their needs”.

A Seafood Scotland spokesman said: “Scottish shellfish has a growing reputation for quality and as a result the demand for our seafood is increasing.

“We continue to see heightened interest in Scottish shellfish from buyers at home and abroad seeking fresh, premium shellfish which Scotland is well placed to provide. T

“The industry has responded to this demand by continuing to increase production through sustainable and environmentally responsible cultivation practices”.