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A Draft Framework for Biodiversity in Highland


A high proportion of Highland’s population live near the coast, and many depend on the sea for their livelihood or recreation. Fishing is a mainstay primary industry, which brings considerable local income, although there are issues of managing inshore waters to accommodate all those fishing it and to ensure the maintenance of stocks. Aquaculture, particularly salmon and shellfish farming has also brought both jobs and prosperity to some of Highland’s most economically fragile and peripheral areas. However the growth of this industry has raised concerns over disease and environmental degradation. Species such as seals fuel strong debate. The seas remain an important transport route for freight, and oil exploration and its conveyance harbours the continual threat of marine pollution. There are difficult issues to be tackled. The oceans are wild areas which we harvest not farm, and the natural environment has a vital role to play in assuring this continued bounty. Although increasing numbers of people are enjoying the marine environment through diving, recreational boating and wildlife boat tours, it remains the most unknown aspect of our environment, too easily out of sight and therefore mind.

The biodiversity resource: Key habitats and species in Highland

The sea and seabed around Scotland support a tremendous variety of wildlife. This is due to the complexity of the environment, there being both warm ocean currents from the south (the Gulf Stream) and cold sub-Arctic waters from the north, variations in tidal range and geology.

Sublittoral sands and gravels are the most common habitats found below the level of the lowest low tide around the UK, in a wide variety of environments. The diversity of wildlife living there varies depending upon the degree of environmental stress, for example the degree of wave action. Many of the inshore areas are important nursery grounds for juvenile commercial fish species, and offshore sand and gravel habitats support internationally important fish and shellfish fisheries. Although widespread, this group of habitats is particularly under threat from fishing, aggregate dredging, pollutants and those activities which may affect tidal flow regimes, wave exposure or sediment deposition. The West Coast Sea lochs, the Cromarty Firth and Skye are all noted as locations for specific variants of these habitats.

Mud habitats in deep water occupy the sea bed below 20-30m in many areas of the UK’s marine environment, including sea lochs. They support a very high diversity of small burrowing animals, including sea pens, Nephrops norvegicus (scampi) and urchins. The majority of deep sea habitats are fished, principally for Nephrops using benthic trawls or creels. The impacts of creels are thought to be minimal, whereas trawling can be very detrimental. Marine fish farms can also pose a threat , through anchoring and discharges of feed and chemicals from sites with poor water circulation . The west coast of Scotland is the most important part of the UK for this habitat, which is present in all the sea lochs.

Maerl beds are created by several species of red algae that form a coral- like structure in high energy environments. They are known to be present in less than 1% of the UK’s inshore waters, occurring off the southern and western coasts of Britain. Highland is particularly significant for maerl beds. The Sound of Arisaig, Upper Loch Torridon and Handa Sound all have large areas of maerl beds, also there are areas in Loch Carron. Maerl is significant not only in its own right but also for its value as nursery grounds for scallops.

Horse mussel (Modiolus modiolus) beds form at depths of between 5 and 70 m in fully saline, often moderately tide-swept areas off northern and western parts of the British Isles, both in sea lochs and in open areas of sea.. They are long lived species and recruitment is slow, such that they are very vulnerable to disturbance as recovery is very slow, if it occurs at all. Fishing, particularly using trawls and dredges, is known to be damaging, and other physical impacts such as aggregate extraction are also likely to be detrimental. The impacts of pollution are unknown. Whilst horse mussels are widespread as individuals, beds are uncommon. Small areas of beds occur within Lochs Duich, Long and Alsh (candidate SAC).

Particular note should be made of the significance of the west coast sea lochs, which support so many of the nationally important coastal and marine habitats.


Habitats classified as UK BAP priority habitats which occur in Highland

Sublittoral sands and gravels

Maerl beds

Mud habitats in deep water

Modiolus modiolus reefs (horse mussel)

Lophelia pertusa reefs, Sabellaria alveolata reefs, Sabellaria spinulosa reefs and Serpulid reefs are marine UK BAP priority habitats which do not occur in Highland.


UK BAP Priority species recorded in Highland associated with marine habitats

Otter, harbour porpoise, baleen whales, toothed whales, small dolphins

marine turtles

Common scoter (a duck)

Commercial marine fish, deep water fish (for example black scabbard fish, blue ling, orange roughy), common skate, twaite shad, allis shad,

basking shark

sea pen, northern hatchet shell, a fan shell, native oyster.

Ascophyllum nodosum ecad mackii (unattached brown algae)

Some other species of conservation interest

Common and grey seals

Great northern, black and red throated divers, Slavonian Grebes use coastal areas in winter and spring. Eider duck

Wild salmon and sea trout.

Key biodiversity objectives

To maintain and enhance the rich marine heritage of coastal waters, through the promotion of the sustainable management of fish stocks and aquaculture.

To promote local involvement in the management of coastal waters.

To raise public awareness of the value of the marine biodiversity resource.

Trends and issues

See also those in section on Coasts

Intensification of fishing over last 50 years with technological advances, leading to larger catches, also significant discarded by-catches. Fisheries now experiencing declining catches, primarily due to stock depletion and habitat deterioration. Stock management highly complex and very little known. Growing awareness amongst fishermen regarding responsible fishing.

Lobster numbers have declined.

Coastal water quality improving, as effluent loading reducing. Sewage dumping at sea now eliminated. Greatest pollution problems now from diffuse sources such as agriculture. Further improvements likely with integration of range of water related/pollution control legislation under EU Water Framework Directive. Provision /upgrading of sewage treatment facilities still needed in some areas to improve water quality.

Ongoing damage to seabed from dredging for navigational purposes, trawling and aggregate extraction. Potential conflicts with aquaculture. Suction dredging for shell fish not currently a major issue, but pressure may increase in relation to fisheries for razor clams.

Extensive development of aquaculture over last 30 years, growing in scale and diversity of species; the best sites are now developed, however there has been continuing modifications of many sites to optimise growing conditions, minimise impacts and maximise production. Interest in diversifying from salmon to species such as halibut and cod is growing and in a small number of locations these species have replaced salmon. Technology advancing eg automatic feeding systems.

Fish Farming Framework Plans (now known as Aquaculture Framework Plans) introduced by Highland Council in 1988, ongoing, although not complete coverage, advisory not statutory.

Primary legislation anticipated to move planning role for fish farms from the Crown Estate to local authorities, Aquaculture Framework Plans to become statutory.

EU’s revised Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations now embrace fish farming to greater extent. Shell fish farming currently exempt from EAs- may change.

Impacts of fish farming on seabed biota, water quality (from food, waste products, chemicals).

Conflicts between operation of fish farms and wildlife.

Increase in shell fish farming in recent years, especially with crofters diversifying.

Growing interest in seabed “ranching” of scallops or crustaceans via Several (give access rights to an individual) or Regulating Orders, may focus more attention on outer sea loch areas.

Occasional occurrence of naturally occurring toxic algal blooms which result in bans on shell fish marketing. Some speculation regarding possible influence of fish farms.

Decline in numbers of wild migratory salmonids on many west coats rivers. There may be several reasons for this including high densities of sea lice associated with salmon farms affecting migratory fish passing nearby. Also knock on impacts on Fresh water pearl mussel which is dependent on wild migratory salmonids at certain stage in life cycle.

Ongoing impacts from oil and gas industry, threat of pollution from oil spills. Development of the Atlantic frontier oil field.

Marine pollution from shipping and marine litter. Also pollution/litter from local fishing and aquaculture and harbour activities. High risk of tanker/ other shipping disaster, especially west coast.

Artificial reefs- their potential and associated issues need to be investigated, waste minimisation issues.

Increased demand for moorings and slipways, but not currently recognised as a threat to biodiversity.

Climate change - rise in sea levels. Great deal of research but need to consider implications.

Development on the coast - discharges

Increase in green tourism.

Algal blooms - seasonal increase toxin levels

Renewable energy issues- wave and wind.

Marine tourism development been very ad hoc, mixed approach.

Designation and management approach. Review needed of available mechanisms and appropriate approach.

Maerl and sea lochs identified as key habitats for action.


Current mechanisms/ initiatives for promoting biodiversity

Special Areas of Conservation - marine sites (Sound of Arisaig, Moray Firth etc)

Marine Consultation Areas

Statutory conservation designations, management agreements/strategies

The Minch Forum (not currently active)

Marine Wildlife Tour operators voluntary code of conduct

Scottish Coastal Forum (currently developing a Scottish Coastal Strategy)


Proposed policy/Highland- wide measures for promoting & protecting biodiversity

Promotion of more sustainable fishing through stock conservation, local management groups, no take zones, area access agreements for inshore fishing and seabed harvesting, use of Regulating Orders.

Extend coverage of Aquaculture Framework Plans.

Provision of advice to fisheries organisations, fishermen and policy makers so as to improve the monitoring of fishing activity.

Promote minimum use of artificial inputs to fish farms and organic practices.

Marine nature reserves with management plans.

Develop Integrated Coastal Zone Management Strategies (ICZM) - pilot study around Skye and Lochalsh undertaken but not implemented.

Effective liaison between fish farm operators and game fishing interests to minimise conflicts of interest.

Re-routing of shipping away from the Minch.

Shellfish Classifications. Inshore areas designation in relation to water quality and the need to treat the mussels before consumption.

Potential practical opportunities for enhancing biodiversity and its sustainable use

Research into the effects of fishing gear and aquaculture on biodiversity, also review of best practice.

Determine the extent of unmodified examples of habitats/ ecosystems and protect best examples from adverse impacts.

Investigation of more effective construction and management of fish farms to reduce losses to escapes and predators.

Assist development of non-lethal methods to protect farmed stock from predators, which avoid non-target species.

Marine tourism-develop approach to marine tourism, opportunities could include interpretation of a fish farm

Voluntary codes of practice between fish farm operators and conservation interests.

Visits to other fisheries e.g. New Zealand to look at management options.

Interpretation of marine mammals. Use of underwater video for interpretation.

Encourage reportings of marine mammals by fishermen and others.

Work with fishermen to reduce by-catches and to dispose of discarded gear safely.

Seals a useful focus for discussing many issues as particularly visible, high profile.

Make use of travelling information/ interpretation eg on boat. Focus particularly on llinks between “habits and habitats”- what we do has an impact.

Investigate better use of coastal transport.

Small grant scheme or award to promote best practice in marine sustainable management.

Integrate datasets of marine information and identify gaps.

Whole lochs project looking at whole system from river to sea loch, including nutrient loading, community engagement.

Sources of Further Information

Loch Eriboll Aquaculture Framework Plan, Highland Council 2000

UK Biodiversity Group Tranche 2 Action Plans Vol 5, maritime species and habitats, UK BiodiversityGroup, 1999.

Argyll LBAPs for marine wildlife, Draft.

Administrative models for integrated management of the Minch, PR Burbridge 1999.

West Coast Sea Loch Study: the importance of Loch Torridon to the local community, Angus McHattie 1999.

    Survey/Research information and requirements

Information required on marine litter and sources

Information required on economic significance of marine resources.

Need further work on long term trends in seabed flora and fauna.