SCOTLAND’S precious marine environment is at risk unless urgent measures are taken to protect it, conservationists have warned.

WWF Scotland, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and a leading marine research scientist have joined forces to call for the creation of protected marine areas.

Esther Brooker, marine policy officer at WWF Scotland, said positive work to safeguard delicate ecosystems and habitats had been under way since the 2010 Marine Act.

But she warned that more needed to be done by the Scottish Government.

She said: “This means delivery of crucial measures to manage damaging activities in existing protected marine areas and designation of more sites for species not currently covered in the network.

“By doing so the Scottish Government will not only be safeguarding iconic species such as the charismatic, but much declined, harbour seal and life-giving habitats such as seagrass, they will also be protecting the thousands of jobs that rely on us having healthy seas.”

Alison Lomax, director of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, said whales, dolphins, porpoises and basking sharks off the west coast of Scotland deserved protection.

She said: “The evidence exists to support the designation of the remaining marine protection areas to safeguard important feeding and breeding grounds for these charismatic animals.

“With increasing pressure from human activity and the effects of climate change, we need to act now.”

Dr Charlotte Hopkins, a marine research scientist from Glasgow University, said marine protection areas were one of the most effective tools in conserving ocean habitats and species.

She added: “They can help conserve Scotland’s rich biodiversity and sustain the life-supporting services that we depend on.

“These areas are also critical in supporting the ocean’s resilience to climate change.

“The oceans are facing unprecedented threats from plastic pollution, overexploitation and the impacts of climate change and protection areas ... are a crucial component in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its programme for government contained a range of actions to improve the status of the marine environment.

She said: “We are undertaking a review of the National Marine Plan, working to improve the protection of priority marine features, and progressing delivery of management measures for existing marine protected areas.

“We are not limiting our efforts to these areas and are developing a conservation strategy for wide-ranging dolphin and porpoise species.

“We are also implementing our Marine Litter Strategy and tackling the issue of ocean plastics and aiming to introduce a deposit return scheme to encourage recycling.”

The government is also considering how to reduce the demand for single-use products such as coffee-cups and has pledged funds to help address the issue of litter sink areas around Scotland’s coastline.