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Discovery Day opens window to diversity of habitats and wild fish within the Wester Ross MPA

Posted: Wednesday 9 November, 2022 @ 12:28:40

An amazing diversity of seabed habitats and animals can be found within the Wester Ross MPA

Over forty people attended the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area discovery day in Ullapool on 14th October, organised by WRFT with active support from several other local marine coastal community groups.

The purpose of the day was to raise awareness of protected seabed habitats, the amazing diversity of wild fish which live within and around the MPA, and to share and celebrate some of the latest discoveries including underwater videos of wild fish in their natural habitats.

The day was motivated by concerns about possible salmon farm developments within the MPA which could potentially harm protected features and wild fish populations.

Scottish Government agencies SEPA, Marine Scotland Science [MSS] and Nature Scot were all invited to provide information about their own research and policies for safeguarding protected features; none were able to send a representative.  

However, Nature Scot provided a very informative introductory presentation about the Wester Ross MPA. Sue Pomeroy (of Little Loch Broom Marine Life group) volunteered to deliver this presentation at short notice and did a super job.

One of the most important and most sensitive seabed habitats for which the Wester Ross MPA was designated is maerl. Maerl forms in clear water where sunlight reaches the seabed. The red coralline algae which form maerl are very slow growing. Maerl is particularly vulnerable to damage by mobile fishing gear. Prof Jason Hall-Spencer’s presentation about maerl which explained why it is so important to protect remaining maerl beds was delivered via video link from Japan.

Wester Ross has some of the best maerl in NW Europe. In addition to poorly regulated scallop dredging, maerl beds can be vulnerable to damage caused by poorly sited salmon farms. Wastes from salmon farms can settle on or within maerl beds affecting their growth, survival and ecology.

There is growing concern that increased levels of dissolved nutrients (eutrophication) associated with the cumulative impacts of many new large salmon farms may be promoting the growth of epiphytic filamentous algae. These have recently been seen smothering large areas of seabed around Wester Ross with adverse consequences for maerl and seagrass habitats.

Ullapool was founded in the late 18th century as a base for commercial herring fishing. Dr Michelle Frost delivered an excellent summary of the history of the herring fishery and the West of Scotland Herring Hunt Project . You can support wild herring in several ways; please visit the WOSHH website to learn more . . .

One of the highlights from the meeting was a first screening of video footage from the 2022 Baited Underwater Remote Video [BRUV] survey of seascapes and associated animals within the Wester Ross MPA by Dr Neil Burns, presented by Dr Charlotte Hopkins. Highlights of this presentation, including many fish and shellfish (and an octopus . . .) can be found here. Watch this space for links to some of the videos.

Fiona Mackenzie of the Little Loch Broom Marine Life group set up a microscope to examine a sample of maerl gravel with many tiny seashells, a seabed habitats interactive board game, and provided an opportunity for test-piloting an ROV.

Lunch, provided by Ullapool Unpacked! , was fabulous! Thank you Evie for wonderful soup and selection of other amazing food.

The afternoon session focussed on wild salmon, sea trout and salmon farming.

Richard Davies from the Outer Hebrides Fisheries Trust stressed the importance of protecting a diversity of wild salmon populations, and illustrated his talk with dramatic new video footage of wild salmon and sea trout in their natural habitats [link to follow]. 

Peter Cunningham of Wester Ross Fisheries Trust explained why the Wester Ross MPA remains such an important area for wild salmon and sea trout, with six major river systems supporting relatively healthy wild salmon populations flowing into the MPA. Given the on-going collapse of sea trout and wild salmon populations in many other areas where salmon farm development has progressed without adequate protection for wild fish, it has become even more important to safeguard the wild salmon and sea trout of Wester Ross MPA.

Lastly, Matt Zietz from Wester Ross Fisheries described the unique way in which WRF farmed salmon are produced. In contrast to farms operated by larger companies, from 2015 until 2022 WRF was able to maintain very low numbers of parasitic sea lice on their farmed salmon, supporting the recovery of wild sea trout stocks within the Wester Ross MPA. This was done using only wild caught wrasse stocked at low numbers. WRF has recently been taken over by MOWI. 

Discussion . . . for another day

The question of whether it is possible to safeguard healthy wild salmon and sea trout populations alongside very large open cage salmon farms was not addressed at the meeting in detail.

Wester Ross Fisheries Trust, Wester Ross Area Salmon Fishery Board and other organisations and individuals with concerns for the future of wild fish populations in the Wester Ross area await the results of Marine Scotland Science’s long-term (since 2018) tracking studies of wild salmon and sea trout in Loch Torridon. This MSS research project, funded by the Scottish Government, can inform those responsible for protecting wild fish when responding to new salmon farm applications within the Wester Ross MPA area and elsewhere in the west of Scotland.

Is open cage salmon farming compatible with the conservation objectives of the Scottish Government (responsible for safeguarding the Little Gruinard Special Area of Conservation [SAC] for Atlantic Salmon; Loch Maree Special Protected Area [SPA] for the Black-throated divers which depends upon healthy wild fish populations; in addition to the protected features of the Wester Ross MPA)?

Or should seabed habitats and wild fish populations within the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area be given additional protection from open cage salmon farming?

Thank you very much to all who supported the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area Discovery Day, especially all the presenters, Emma Watson, Dorje Khandro, Fiona Mackenzie, Donald Rice, Finlay Pringle, Chloe Hall, Ullapool Unpacked, the Macphail Centre and staff; An Talla Solais art studio and exhibition, artist Julia Barton; Joanie Bones (aka Dorje Khandro), Heather Yule, Irene Brandt, and the Ullapool Harbour Trust for the evening event of songs and stories about the sea. We had a great day!


Presentations, as delivered, can be found on the WRFT22 facebook page