Wester Ross Marine Protected Area (MPA) – previously named “North-west sea lochs and Summer Isles” – encompasses seabed features that not only offer valuable insights into Scotland’s glacial past but are also home to an amazing array of plants and animals.
Burrowed mud, flame shell beds, maerl beds and northern feather star aggregations to name but a few, all find a place to thrive in the mosaic of sea lochs, bays and near shore island channels. This complex landscape is a legacy from the end of the last ice age, when the ice sheet that once covered most of Scotland retreated. The sea bed shows signs of scarring caused by movement of glaciers with linear piles of boulders and cobbles dropped from the ice marking their passage across the continental shelf.
Fisheries management measures for this site have now been designated through a Marine Conservation Order. This follows the public consultation for fisheries management measures ran until 2nd February 2015.
Dredging, and trawling by vessels more than 150 gross tonnes is prohibited within the site. Creeling, angling and demersal trawling by vessels less than 150 gross tonnes is permitted within the site. To see where these restrictions apply check out our Webmap here .
Our response to the 2015 fisheries management consultation
Members of this campaign contend that none of the proposed approaches will adequately protect the features and that they must be augmented by protecting larger areas from damaging fishing methods. This will improve buffer zones around protected marine life, enable ecological recovery and better apply the precautionary principle as part of science-based management.
Members of this campaign recognise that this option will have short and mid-term impacts for a small number of fishing boats that currently fish the area. We think it is important that Marine Scotland supports affected fishermen during the transition in management. It is anticipated that a closure to bottom-towed fishing gear in this area will improve the wider ecological health of our seas and provide long-term, beyond-the-site benefits for commercial fishermen.
Wester Ross is one of only three sites within the network with a marine feature that has been assigned a conservation objective of ‘recover’ – in this case, for maërl beds. Maërl beds are made up of a special type of hard red algae that grows extremely slowly (as little as 2.5cm per year) in a delicate, branching formation. Its structure provides a sheltered habitat for many other species, including juvenile fish and shellfish and other invertebrates. Maërl beds and other types of maërl habitats are highly sensitive to bottom-towed fishing gears and other impacts caused by humans such as sedimentation and chemical pollution; they are easily damaged or destroyed and can take up to 10 years to even start to recover. In Wester Ross ncMPA there are a number of patchy areas where maërl has been found, but it is in poor condition in these areas and needs a permanent rest and plenty of space from damaging fishing methods in order to have any chance of recovery.
The Wester Ross ncMPA also has a conservation objective of ‘recover’ for flame shells. This species is a type of clam which produces adhesive threads that weave together into a nest-like structure with those of other flame shells as they grow, creating an important sea bed habitat for literally hundreds of other types of plants and invertebrates. These biologically engineered habitats, like the maërl beds, are also important nursery and hunting areas for juvenile shellfish and fish. Flame shells are not only sensitive to direct physical damage from bottom-towed fishing gear, but are susceptible to smothering by stirred up sediment which interferes with their ability to filter food particles from the water.
Both these habitats need relief from fishing activity to ensure they are not damaged further than they already have been and space to increase (recover), undisturbed, their size and range within the site. Although approach 2 is the best of the management options presented for Wester Ross ncMPA, it does not take account of the latest evidence. The approach provides the largest areas around the maërl and flame shell beds where bottom-towed fishing gear is prohibited and allows the most scope for their much needed recovery. However, our proposed additional zones (in orange) capture the results of a recent survey that identified several previously unrecorded maërl beds. Marine Scotland must now take account of these findings and protect these additional areas at the very least and possibly more by following a precautionary approach.
We support the inclusion of the management zone in approach 2 to protect part of the burrowed mud habitat from bottom-towed fishing activities and we would be keen to see consideration of further protected areas for burrowed mud within this MPA. Burrowed mud may not sound like much, but it is a remarkably rich type of habitat that is home to a wide variety of species, such as beautiful sea pens, spectacular fireworks anemones and the Norway lobster or langoustine (a commercially important species), which live within the mud. The reduction in vessel capacity throughout the site will mean only smaller fishing boats will be able to operate in the area, which will moderate, but not prevent, potential damage that other seabed features may sustain.
Marine Scotland provide background information about the proposed protection of the site including maps, details of the possible management and some pictures of the marine life (which is well worth a look).
Our response to 2013 MPA network consultation
LINK supports the designation of the North-west sea lochs and Summer Isles possible Nature Conservation MPA for the protection of burrowed mud, circalittoral muddy sand communities, flame shell beds; kelp and seaweed communities on sublittoral sediments, maerl beds, maerl or coarse shell gravel with burrowing sea cucumbers and northern feather star aggregations on mixed substrata, and for geodiversity features – marine geomorphology of the Scottish shelf seabed, seabed fluid and gas seep, submarine mass movement, and quaternary of Scotland. The boundary is fully supported – as is the inclusion of the circalittoral muddy sand communities to ensure representation of broad-scale habitats in the network. This possible MPA contains an extraordinarily wide range of species and habitats at diverse scales, including the most northerly records of flame shell bed in UK waters and all three types of sea pen.
Seagrass beds should be added as a protected feature in the possible MPA. Although the distribution of Zostera marina in south-east Gruinard Bay is patchy, together with the beds in Loch Gairloch these are described as ‘possibly the richest examples on the mainland coastline of northern Scotland from at least Loch Alsh to the Moray Firth.’ . Additionally the seagrass records in Gruinard Bay were identified as having the potential to be protected through enhancing the existing Little Loch Broom and Gruinard Bay Fisheries restriction Area (CA59) with MPA designation.
We support the conservation objectives. We note that flame shell beds are not covered in the introduction to the management options paper – but from the consultation document are set to recover along with maerl beds.Management Options:
We support the exclusion mobile /active gear types and diver hydraulic methods from flame shell beds, maerl beds and maerl or coarse gravel with burrowing sea cucumbers. Management to reduce the pressure on maerl and burrowed mud by static gear is also supported. We support proposals to relocate the disposal site to an area of less sensitivity and further assessments to determine impact of the Loggie Bay anchorage and moorings in Loch Broom on flame shells beds.
In the absence of detailed information relating to the impacts of aquaculture on proposed protected features within an MPA it is imperative that the precautionary approach be applied. Discussions with finfish farming interests cannot be used as a proxy for specific, detailed information and where doubt exists management measures must be precautionary.Socioeconomic Assessment:
LINK acknowledges the enormously important contribution of the Gairloch and Wester Loch Ewe Community to bringing this possible MPA to the consultation stage. This contribution is an outstanding demonstration of the high value that local communities place on the integrity of their marine environment.
The involvement of the local community in this MPA proposal is an excellent example of the existence of the non-use value of MPAs that has been largely omitted from the economic assessments. It is possible that existing shell fisheries (hand-dived/creeling) and wildlife related tourism and sea angling will benefit from MPA designation. The wider economic potential of the region could benefit from improved marine nature conservation alongside terrestrial initiatives. The possible MPA lies adjacent to the ‘Coigach Assynt Living Landscape’ a unique community partnership project and one of the largest landscape restoration projects in Europe, which aims to bring environmental and economic benefits to the Coigach and Assynt region of north west Scotland.
Inclusion of seagrass beds as a protected feature in this MPA could have additional socioeconomic benefits as they are important spawning grounds for herring and nursery habitat for small scallops, lobsters and crabs and small cod.
The potential value of the North-west sea lochs and Summer Isles possible MPA to divers and sea anglers has been estimated at £6.7 to £14.2 million based on willingness-to-pay measures (Kenter et al., 2013) . Kenter et al. also found important emotional and well-being benefits associated with the North-west sea lochs and Summer Isles possible MPA, with divers and anglers responding to questionnaire scoring >4 (out of a maximum score of 5) for engagement, therapeutic, spiritual, transformative and social wellbeing indicator values.Research is required to investigate the Interactions between active/mobile gear and northern featherstar aggregations, kelp and seaweed on sublittoral sediments and circalittoral muddy sand communities.
Harbour porpoise are known to use this site and under Guideline 1b of the selection criteria for PMFs on the OSPAR T&D list should be protected in the MPA and considered in the management options, as well as consideration of designation as part of the Natura 2000 SAC network.
Check out the official documents relating to the North-west sea lochs and Summer Isles MPA on the Scottish Natural Heritage website.
 North-west sea lochs and Summer Isles MPA site summary document