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Sea Exploration Highlights Marine Wildlife

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SCOTLAND - Exploration of the seas around Ullapool has helped confirm the presence of some of Scotland's most important marine wildlife features.

The team of marine biologists from Heriot-Watt University's School of Life Sciences and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) charted the presence, condition and extent of a number of Priority Marine Features (PMFs) in Loch Broom, Little Loch Broom, Loch Gairloch, Loch Ewe, Gruinard Bay and the Summer Isles.

In Little Loch Broom a bed of the coral-like algae maerl was identified as one of the richest examples of the habitat in this part of Scotland. Seagrass beds in Loch Gairloch and Gruinard Bay were more widespread than previously thought and scientists think the beds are possibly the richest examples in north Scottish waters.

Colin Trigg, SNH's project manager for the Ullapool survey, stressed: "This work, carried out last year, represented the first of several planned marine explorations that will help us develop a greater understanding of the distribution and extent of species and habitats found in Scottish waters."

"It involved a drop-down video camera to capture undersea footage augmented with grab' samples from the seabed, and scientific dive surveys for more detailed analysis of specific features."

Dense fields of the northern feather star were observed at the mouths of Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom, with a particularly rich and previously unrecorded bed found outside the mouth of Loch Gairloch.

Meanwhile, a diver survey authenticated the presence of a flame shell bed within the Sruth Lagaidh Narrows in Loch Broom.

Colin added: "The flame shell bed in Loch Broom, although small, is important due to its northerly location. Unfortunately these animals have dwindled alarmingly in the past 100 years which is particularly significant for the array of species these beds support. Recent evidence suggests the diversity of these beds is comparable to the richest and most diverse reefs in UK inshore waters."

The Ullapool Approaches survey was run under the auspices of the Scottish Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Project, a joint initiative between Marine Scotland, Historic Scotland, SNH and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

Although previous records had suggested the presence of native oyster beds, horse mussel beds and the European spiny lobster, none were found. However, the uncommon tall sea pen' was found to be widespread, with high population densities present in the inner basins of Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom.