CONSERVATIONISTS young and old are opposing a plan for a large fish farm which they say threatens to damage "fragile" marine habitats in a protected zone off the north-west coast of Scotland.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has been joined by an youth environmental conservation organisation in saying the plans for a 12-cage salmon farm within the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area pose a "serious threat" to wildlife and the local creel fishing industry.

Scottish Sea Farms has applied to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency for a licence to site the 12-cage salmon farm near Horse Island in Loch Broom, off Ullapool.

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The Trust is concerned that waste material generated by the farm inthe Summer Isles archipelago would damage several fragile protected features including maerl beds, northern feather stars and kelp forests.

It said the important habitats act as nurseries for a range of marine wildlife including economically important species such as scallops and lobsters.

The conservation group said a number of the threatened habitats are also increasingly recognised as vital stores of blue carbon. Maerl, a type of algae similar to coral, can lock up carbon on the seabed for thousands of years.

They have been joined by the youth environmental conservation organisation Ullapool Sea Savers, which said: "We cannot see the logic of declaring an area of sea protected and even restricting local fishing boats access to grounds that are then going to be turned into fish farms.

"Whilst we have existing fish farms locally that do employ people and we can understand arguments for them being allowed to stay, it seems ridiculous to allow expansion or new farms to be allowed into these areas."

Dr Sam Collin, the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s living seas manager added: “We support sustainable aquaculture and we want to see Scotland’s fish farming sector operating in a way that is compatible with a thriving marine environment.

“The site proposed by Scottish Sea Farms is entirely unsuitable due to its proximity to important protected habitats. These plans pose a serious threat to marine wildlife, stores of blue carbon, and the local creel fishing industry.

The Bountiful Sea: the story of the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (short-version) from National Trust for Scotland on Vimeo.

“Scotland is facing a biodiversity and climate crisis. Protecting the health of Scotland’s seas with an effective network on protected areas is increasingly important. Allowing this salmon farm to go ahead when it threatens so many of the features which should be safeguarded by the Marine Protected Area would set a worrying precedent.”

Scottish Sea Farms has produced a full Environmental Impact Assessment by independent environmental consultants Aquatera, which it said gave "full consideration" of the marine protected area (MPA), and will be made publicly available at the next stage of the consultation process.

The farm will provide jobs for six in full time roles and up to two Modern Apprenticeship opportunities.

Scottish Sea Farms managing director, Jim Gallagher Scottish Sea Farms said that it was "absolutely right" that sensitive habitats and species are protected and said that the firm had taken "great care from the outset" to ensure there’s no overlap between the proposed farm and priority marine features such as the maerl beds and other marine plants and animals they are home to.

He said that several of thier farms are already located in marine protected areas – our nearby farms at Tanera and Fada included "proving that, with responsible and sympathetic farm management, both can co-exist".

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Octopus on maerl. Picture: Howard Wood

He added: “By exercising due diligence at each step of process, our aim is deliver a win-win outcome for the Summer Isles community: the creation of highly skilled, highly paid jobs and modern apprenticeships, while at the same time protecting its healthy marine environment for generations to come. In terms of the wider environment meanwhile, the new farm would enable us to provide more healthy, nutritious seafood via one of the lowest carbon farming sectors there is.

“For now though, the consultation process is very much ongoing, with plenty of opportunity for community input. We welcome that input, we’re listening and we’re keen to address any concerns that might exist.”