All forms of dredging are now prohibited in the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) which is home to delicate maerl beds. This fragile underwater feature is a nursery habitat for young scallops as well as other juvenile fish and shellfish.
The move comes after concerned members of the local community photographed and reported a breach of voluntary arrangements for fishing in the area, which have been in place since the site was designated a MPA last year.
Scotland’s network of Marine Protected Areas has been put in place to safeguard the nation’s most iconic marine species and habitats and, by doing so, securing the future of Scottish fisheries.
Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: 'It's very disappointing that a scallop dredger has breached the voluntary fishery management measures in this MPA which is considered vital to the recovery of maerl beds.
“The seabed shows signs of damage consistent with a pass of scallop dredging gear. Maerl beds can take centuries to grow back and further risk of damage to these precious habitats cannot be allowed.
“The evidence in this case has left me with no choice but to close the Wester Ross MPA to dredging now, instead of waiting until November as planned.
“This emergency conservation order will not affect other fishing activity in the Wester Ross MPA, including hand diving for scallops. Overall, these fisheries are worth around £2 million per year, mostly to the local community, and much of this will remain unaffected.
“However, dredging permitted under the voluntary management measures for the Wester Ross MPA was estimated to produce less than £100,000 worth of scallops each year. And of course, the 20 or so vessels that occasionally dredge in these waters – none of which are based in the local area - are free to fish elsewhere.
“Clearly, taking action now to protect these precious nursery habitats will benefit Scotland’s marine environment, local communities and our fishing sector for generations to come.”