WREN - Wester Ross Environment Network
 

Sea and Coast

Introduction

Proximity to the sea has a huge influence on the biological richness of Wester Ross. The area has a long, varied and very beautiful coastline, ranging from exposed headlands to deeply indented, extremely sheltered sea lochs. The Wester Ross sea lochs are true fjords, with ice-scoured basins separated from each other and from the open sea by relatively narrow and shallow sills, and in Scotland are features found only on the west coast.

The coast supports a wide variety of habitats including coastal heaths and cliffs, rocky shores, sandy beaches, sand dunes and salt marshes. Our cliffs and islands are home to large numbers of seabirds, which feed at sea and come ashore to nest and rear their young, while harbour (common) seals produce their pups on offshore rocks and skerries. Turnstone and Ringed plover frequent the mouth of the Sand river in winter. Tracks of otter can often be seen in the sands nearby.

Underwater, the special habitats greatly enhance the marine biodiversity of the area. Inside the quiet, sheltered basins, conditions on the seabed are similar to those in the very deep sea off the continental shelf, especially when a layer of peaty fresh or brackish water floats on the surface after rain, cutting out light and insulating the water below from marked temperature changes. Here, mud and rock at relatively shallow depths support animals which are more typical of very deep water.

By contrast, strong water currents in the tidal narrows and rapids nourish a wide range of animals, and communities here include horse mussel reefs, flame shell reefs, brittlestar beds and maerl (calcareous seaweed) beds. Rich mixed sediments with many burrowing animals occur in many parts of the lochs, and seagrass beds grow in some shallow, sheltered bays.

Our sea lochs are also important nursery grounds for cod and other commercially important fish species, and the outer lochs and open waters are frequented by whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals. Wester Ross is in a fortunate geographical position where both southern and northern marine species occur, and the overlap of these on our coasts adds considerably to the biodiversity compared with the equivalent latitude on the east coast. The open coasts of Wester Ross are partly sheltered by Raasay and Skye in the south, and by the island chain of the Western Isles across the Minch. The seashores are predominantly rocky, covered with barnacles and seaweeds. An offshore rock in Outer Loch Torridon is the northern recorded limit for a spongy green seaweed, Codium adhaerens. A few clean sandy beaches break the rocky coastline, with good examples at Achnahaird, Red Point and Gairloch.

Sealoch shores are mainly very sheltered and covered with dense brown seaweeds. Crofter’s wig (Ascophyllum nodosum ecad mackaii) is a very distinctive form of the common egg or knotted wrack, which lives unattached on the shore in very sheltered corners where there is some regular freshwater influence. This seaweed is found in west coast sea lochs and nowhere else in the world, and has its own action plan. Another brown seaweed, moss wrack (Fucus muscoides) grows only a centimetre or two high in saltmarsh turf. Underwater, there is often a mixed seabed in shallow water, with rock outcrops in clean sediments of coarse sand and shell gravel. Boulders and bedrock are covered with several kinds of kelp, and the rocks are often scoured by nearby sand. In deeper water the sediments change from coarse grained sands to fine muds, which are inhabited by a variety of burrowing animals, while deep water featherstars are common on rocks. In the Inner Sound between Raasay and Applecross are some of the deepest inshore waters in Britain, at over 200m. In the deep mud basins, commercially important Nephrops (prawn) populations live in mud burrows amongst giant sea pens a metre tall, together with Fries’s goby, burrowing brittlestars, burrowing crustaceans and anemones. Loch Diabaig is the only place in Britain where the big deepwater brittlestar Asteronyx loveni, which lives clinging onto giant seapens, has been seen by divers in relatively shallow water at 32m.

Deep, sheltered rock is another rare habitat found only in the sealoch basins, again with a very distinctive community on underwater cliffs of white sealoch anemones, ancient shelled brachiopods, seasquirts, peacock fan worms, brittlestars, deepwater featherstars and strange sponges. This community is found on the south side of Loch Carron.

A greater variety of animals inhabit shallower mixed sediments. Here lives a curious ‘giant’ foraminiferan made of a single cell up to 5cm across, only recently described from a few Scottish sea lochs, including Loch Torridon and Loch Carron. The rare and nationally important fan mussel has been found at the entrance to Loch Carron in recent years. There are more familiar animals in and on these sediments too – brittlestars, starfish, hermit crabs, brown crabs, squat lobsters, flatfish and many more.

Seagrass beds grow on shallow sand in a few locations, with clingfish, pipefish and stalked jellyfish being some of the more interesting inhabitants.

Maerl beds are of particular importance as they are only found in 1% of UK’s inshore waters. Maerl is made up of several species of red algae, which form pink, branched nodules that lie loose on the seabed. Its white chalky skeleton is the main constituent of the ‘coral’ strands in some places on the west coast. Maerl bed with sunstars, brittlestars & soft coral. Maerl grows in relatively exposed places near sealoch entrances, as on the south side of Loch Torridon

and in Loch Carron, as well as in tidal narrows. Many small marine animals find shelter amongst its branches, including the larvae and young stages of commercially important fish and shellfish. A rich community of bivalves, burrowing urchins, sea cucumbers and worms inhabit the maerl gravel which accumulates beneath the living layers. Maerl is fragile, and the beds are vulnerable to mechanical damage and smothering.

Tidal rapids and narrows are particularly rich hotspots of marine biodiversity, and often contain a mosaic of different communities in a small area. Particularly important habitats include horse mussel reefs and flame shell reefs. Horse mussels use strong byssus threads to bind together seabed materials such as stones and shells. Flame shells use their byssus threads to build nests with an opening at each end, making a labyrinth of chambers over the seabed. Both molluscs stabilise the mobile sediment seabed so that a wide variety of other animals can live on or in it, greatly increasing the biodiversity.

Over time, ‘biogenic’ (built by living creatures) reefs become built up above the surrounding seabed by the accumulation of dead shells and seabed materials. Horse mussel and flame shell reefs occur in Strome narrows, Loch Carron, and horse mussel beds are also present in Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom. Other important communities in tidal narrows include dense beds of brittlestars, maerl, and abundant soft corals on rock. Commercial fishing is important in the sea lochs and open waters of Wester Ross. The waters of the Minch and the west coast of Scotland have always been rich fishing grounds. Nowadays common skate, cod, hake, herring, mackerel, plaice, saithe, sole, monkfish and ling are still caught in inshore waters, but not in any great numbers. The majority of the commercial fishing relies on prawns Nephrops norvegicus with squat lobsters, crabs, lobsters and scallops also being caught. Dolphins, whales and even turtles have been recorded in the waters off Wester Ross. The most frequent visitors are the harbour porpoise, the minke whale, Risso’s dolphin and the common dolphin, which can occasionally be seen from the shore. The bottle-nosed dolphin, northern bottle-nosed whale and killer whales are also recorded. Within the sea lochs the most common cetacean is the harbour porpoise, while both grey and common seals come close to the shore to feed, rest and raise their pups. Leatherback turtles are sometimes found swimming in our waters, brought northwards on the Gulf Stream.

Sea lochs are also important feeding areas for both black-throated and red-throated divers. These magnificent birds breed on the freshwater lochs of the area. Gairloch is one of several lochs of special importance with groups of 10-20+ black-throated divers present during much of the year. alt marshes are not as well represented in Wester Ross as they are in many other parts of the Highlands. They tend to be small patches at the heads of lochs, with those at Loch Broom, Little Loch Broom, Achnahaird, and Loch Carron being the largest.

They are, however, a beautiful sight in late spring when thousands of thrift flowers turn the saltmarsh turf pink, and are also very important for flowers such as the annual eyebright Euphrasia heslopharrisonii which, although very rare, has been recorded in South West Ross.

Saline lagoons in the UK are essentially bodies, natural or artificial, of saline water partially separated from the adjacent sea. They retain a proportion of their sea water at low tide and may develop as brackish, full saline or hyper-saline water bodies. Only two small brackish lagoons were reported by Marine Nature Conservation Review (MNCR) surveys on this coast, at Reiff and Loch an Eisg Brachaidh, both with typical impoverished fauna and flora. Beds of tasselweed Ruppia species were reported in Loch an Eisg Brachaidh in the 1950s, but none was seen on recent surveys. Ob Mheallaidh in Loch Torridon is a fully saline lagoon with rich molluscan fauna and small amounts of seagrass.

Dune and Machair:

Beaches are an important part of the Wester Ross landscape and they also add to the diversity of habitats. There are fine examples at Achnahaird, Red Point and Gairloch. The sand dunes at Achnahaird support the species petalwort of the ancient liverwort plant group, as well as the dune slack mosses matted bryum and sea bryum. All three of these species are very rare and only occur in a single 10km square in Scotland. Ringed plover and oystercatcher breed on pebble-cobble beaches such as at Big Sand. Machair is very limited in Wester Ross, only found in small patches at Mellon Udrigle, Opinan and Achnahaird. These sites are all very important locally, supporting a diverse array of plant species on the soils enriched by blown shell sand, such as tri-colour pansy, selfheal, red bartsia, hogweed and various orchid and grass species. Hogweed is an important food source for the northern colletes bee, which nests in machair grass land and the marram zone of dunes. It is noticeable on sunny days in June when the bees fly in a dense carpet over the ground surface visiting nesting holes and mating. Coastal vegetated shingle is of global geomorphological importance although it is also only present to a limited extent, for example at Inverasdale.

Coastal Cliff and Heath:

There are around 100 kilometres of coastal cliffs in the north-west Highlands. Rubha Reidh, Greenstone Point, Priest Island, the Summer Isles and Reiff are all good examples and support important bird colonies. From May to August these cliffs may be home to puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots, cormorants and shags. Priest Island is internationally important for its large colony of storm petrels, and other sites such as the Summer Isles are heavily visited every year by keen bird watchers. Maritime heath is present to a limited extent at Red Point, Isle Martin, the Summer Isles and Scoraig. This lowland heath has a coastal influence but does not have many of the key and interesting maritime heath species such as spring squill and the Scottish primrose.

Objectives:

1. Ensure that marine and coastal habitats are managed sustainably, recognising that the natural integrity of habitats is important for biodiversity, and is therefore likely to be important in providing the optimum yield of managed resources. 2. Ensure that future marine developments take account of biodiversity, and actively encourage developments which enhance biodiversity or which have no adverse impacts on it. 3. Raise general awareness about local marine life, coastal habitats and marine resources, and the importance of biodiversity in maintaining the health of these. 4. Include consideration of biodiversity in the formation of local coastal zone management plans.

Main Issues:

1.1 Fishing

Issues:

The numbers and variety of commercial fish species such as herring, cod and haddock, which were once common in the area, have been greatly reduced by fishing and other factors. Over the last 20 years the seabird population has declined, linked to a reduction in the availability of the main foodstock of sandeels and young fish. Commercial fishing of sandeels for fuel and animal and fish farm feed is unsustainable, as they form the base of the food chain for a number of larger fish, bird and mammal species. Mobile bottom fishing gear used in trawling or dredging can cause extensive damage to some types of seabed, including the spawning beds of local fish species such as cod, haddock and plaice. Ghost fishing from lost creels and nets is also an issue, and thought should be given to the use of biodegradable creel materials to minimise this.

Current projects:

Local fishermen have set up the Highland Shellfish Management Organisation (HSMO), with support from The Highland Council, Scottish Natural Heritage and Highlands & Islands Enterprise. The Company is applying for a Regulating Order to enable shellfish stocks in the Highland area to be managed locally, and the Scottish Executive has agreed to draft the Order for consultation. The Torridon Creel Fishing Management Plan was established in November 2000, when an area closed to all mobile fishing gear was set up for an initial period of five years, between Red Point, and the south end of the BUTEC Range in the Inner Sound of Rona, including Loch Torridon. Shieldaig Export Ltd has fitted escape panels to all creels used by boats landing prawns with the company. The escape panels have been designed to allow juvenile prawns to escape and return to their burrows, resulting in an increase in the minimum size of prawns caught, raising the value of the catch and improving the sustainability of the fishery in the long term. An international project has been initiated in the area of Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom to produce an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan (ICZMP), which will identify the key issues and work with marine and coastal users to find ways of addressing them.

Future actions:

  1. Lobby for a ban on the commercial fishing for sandeels, and encourage the aquaculture industry to use by-catch and fish waste from processing plants in its feed. (Suggested partners: individuals, politicians)
  2. Subject to the results of monitoring, give consideration to the extension of the Loch Torridon Creel Fishing Management Plan for inshore creel-only fishing to other areas, and a reinstatement of the three mile trawling limit. (Suggested partners: fishermen’s groups, managers, scientists)
  3. Encourage research into the potential for fishing species other than Nephrops, possibly as part of a PhD project. (Suggested partners: Scottish Executive, Scottish Natural Heritage)

1.2 Aquaculture Issues:

Both finfish and shellfish farming take place in Wester Ross, and the industry is a major source of employment for local people. Although shellfish farming and ranching in its current form apparently causes minimal impact on the marine environment, concerns have been expressed over the effects of finfish farming. Pollution from nutrient enrichment and the use of fish medications toxic to other marine wildlife has been raised as an issue, particularly within the semienclosed environment of sea lochs. Inter-breeding of farmed stock with wild fish and the spread of sea lice and fish diseases have also been identified as issues, and there are concerns that new species such as cod and halibut will be farmed on a large scale before a proper assessment has been made of the potential impact of this change.

Current projects:

The aquaculture industry has made improvements over the past few years to combat problems associated with pollution and environmental impact, and discharges are regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). The maximum biomass of fish that may be held on each site is determined by SEPA as part of the discharge consent application for each fish farm, and is site specific. All new sites and expansions to existing sites are likely to be subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Local authorities and other regulators are working together to improve the quality of fish farm EIAs as one of the outputs of the Strategic Framework for Scottish Aquaculture. The Highland Council has produced Aquaculture Framework Plans for some areas within the Highland area that seek to locate developments in the most suitable sites and highlight issues that would need to be considered by the applicant, such as the impact on national priority habitats and species. A Plan prepared in 1998 is in place for Loch Torridon, which the Council will review in due course.

Loch Torridon and Loch Carron are Marine Consultation Areas (MCAs). This is a non-statutory designation given by Scottish Natural Heritage to an area that is considered to be of particular value with respect to its ecological quality and sensitivity. The MCA designation is intended to increase conservation awareness within communities and planning bodies and to provide a focus for management purposes.

The Tripartite Working Group is a national body set up to resolve conflicting views between fish farming and wild fisheries interests. It consists of representatives of the fish farming industry, wild fisheries and the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department, and has recommended that Area Management Groups be set up locally to agree Area Management Agreements covering issues such as the monitoring and management of sea lice and escapes. In Wester Ross, Area Management Groups have been set up for Loch Kishorn and Loch Carron. The Seafield College at Kishorn and commercial fish farming companies have used their facilities to assist local Wester Ross rivers to restock with farmed native stock. There are further opportunities throughout Scotland to use professional hatcheries to grow native salmon smolts and restock Scottish rivers.

Future actions:

  1. Encourage fish farmers to synchronise their production within a Management Area, and site cages away from the mouths of rivers and streams. (Suggested partners: Members of the Tripartite Working Group, Area Management Groups)
  2. Broaden the coverage of Aquaculture Framework Plans to the whole of Wester Ross, and ensure that they address potential impacts on species such as Atlantic salmon, sea trout and freshwater pearl mussel with regard to the siting of new fish farms. (Suggested partners: Highland Council, consultees)
  3. Encourage the transfer of planning powers from the Crown Estate to local authorities at the earliest opportunity. (Suggested partners: Scottish Executive, Crown Estate, Highland Council)

1.3 Recreation & tourism Issues:

As wildlife and marine tourism increases, there is a major need being expressed for better interpretation for local people which could also feed into opportunities such as sealife centres or diver facilities. It is important however that recreation opportunities are managed to avoid damaging impacts, such as the disturbance of cetaceans (e.g. porpoises) by speedboats, or the disruption of nesting birds such as oystercatcher or ringed plover by walkers or dogs in May and June. Across the whole range of habitat types there is concern over the lack of information and education currently being provided, and a major need for better interpretation for local people as well as visitors. Anchoring can potentially cause damage to fragile seabed communities such as seagrass and maerl beds, and if these areas were to be identified skippers could be encouraged to avoid them in usual circumstances.

Current projects:

The Seawatch Foundation has been actively involved in the monitoring of cetaceans throughout Scotland. It is seeking to encourage more local involvement, and has a website where sightings can be recorded. Seasearch is a national project for volunteer sports divers who have an interest in what they’re seeing underwater, want to learn more and want to help protect the marine environment. The main aim is to record species and map out the various types of seabed found in the near-shore zone, up to about 5 miles off the coast or 30m depth in selected locations around the British Isles. Seasearch surveys have been carried out in Loch Torridon, and are planned for Loch Carron in 2004.

Lochcarron Sailing Club The Isle Martin Trust and pupils of Ullapool High School are working together to find out more about the wildlife of the island and run guided walks for tourists over the summer.

The Loch Torridon Initiative is a partnership between organisations and local communities to implement a series of projects. These projects include the provision of interpretation around the loch, the improvement of the marketing of shellfish and the provision of electronic logbooks for data analysis.

Local people have initiated a Wester Ross Marine Reserve Partnership to bring forward a proposal to designate areas of Wester Ross as a Marine Reserve or Park. The Partnership is distributing a series of marine postcards, which it hopes will raise awareness of the richness of the underwater environment of Little Loch Broom and Annat Bay.

Future actions:

  1. Support and promote green tourism businesses associated with the sea and coast, and encourage wildlife watching facilities to adhere to standard codes of good practice. (Suggested partners: Highlands of Scotland Tourist Board, Tourism & the Environment Forum, Hebridean Whale & Dolphin Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage)
  2. Support communities wishing to help manage their marine and coastal environments, such as the Inverasdale community, which is seeking to stabilise the dune systems and improve habitats around the shoreline of West Loch Ewe. (Suggested partners: Scottish Natural Heritage, Highland Council, Ross & Cromarty Enterprise)
  3. Develop a hide on the shores of Loch Ewe to enhance education and interpretation of the area. (Suggested partners: National Trust for Scotland, local community)
  4. Provide an indoor viewing platform with telescope, binoculars and spotting information at Rua Reidh lighthouse. (Suggested partners: Owners, Scottish Natural Heritage, Ross & Cromarty Enterprise, Wester Ross Ranger Service, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds)
  5. Supply a close-circuit camera facility with video and computer links at a prominent location such as Rua Reidh, which could be augmented by a lighthouse display, interest sessions for children and short interpretive walks along the cliffs. (Suggested partners: as above)
  6. Erect an interpretative board at Shieldaig and other suitable locations to explain the relationship between village and sea. (Suggested partners: local communities, Scottish Natural Heritage, Ross & Cromarty Enterprise)
  7. Investigate the feasibility of a Scottish Sea Life Restoration Centre in Gairloch. This would be a major new visitor centre to promote greater awareness of the marine environment, its fisheries and wildlife in order to encourage conservation, restoration and sustainable management of all marine resources. (Suggested partners: local community, interest groups, Ross & Cromarty Enterprise)
  8. Identify and map fragile marine habitats such as maerl beds and seagrass beds, and make this information available to sailors and boat users. (Suggested partners: Scottish Natural Heritage, UK Hydrographic Office, Clyde Cruising Club)

1.4 Lack of species & habitat information Issues:

There is a general lack of knowledge on the distribution of many marine and coastal habitats and species in Wester Ross, some of which are rare or threatened. This is of concern because if we do not know where they are or what impacts on their health, we may lose them from our waters.

Current projects:

A survey is currently being carried out to establish the distribution and abundance of the colletes bee in Wester Ross. Scottish Natural Heritage is currently carrying out a National Oyster Survey, which seeks to clarify the current status of the native oyster population in Scotland and identify actions to help it recover. Scottish Natural Heritage has initiated a research project on the national priority habitat Zostera marina (eel grass) beds, in North West Ross and West Sutherland, to build up a picture of distribution.

Future actions:

1. Carry out marine surveys and monitoring work on national and local priority habitats and species to help fill gaps in our knowledge. (Suggested partners: Scottish Natural Heritage, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Marine Conservation Society, local recorders and diving clubs) 2.Carry out marine audits, e.g. of Little Loch Broom & Annat Bay, including an assessment of water quality & the habitats and species present in the area. (Suggested partners: local community & interest groups, Wester Ross Marine Reserve Partnership)

1.5 Climate Change Issues:

The impact of changes in sea temperatures and levels as a result of climate change has been raised as an issue. Temperature increases could result in a loss of some species, which are currently at the southern edge of their range (for example, northern sea fan, white trumpet anemone, stone crab, wolf fish), but could also bring in southern species, which are at the northern edge of their range (for example, purple urchin, cotton spinner (a sea cucumber), red soft coral, featherstar prawn). An alternative scenario predicts possible dramatic decreases in water temperatures in the North Atlantic if the present major current systems are altered. Whilst there is little that can be done to counteract this change, we know relatively little about the distribution of many of our rare and ‘indicator’ marine species, and there is a need for further underwater surveys and monitoring projects.

Current projects:

Scottish Natural Heritage and others are monitoring climate change and modelling the implications on our habitats and species.

Future actions:

1.Continue to monitor and model changes in our sea temperatures and levels, and associated impacts on Wester Ross species, and feed this information in to management plans. (Suggested partners: Scottish Natural Heritage, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology)

1.6 Other issues

Pollution and Litter

Although the local marine environment is relatively clean by UK standards, there are concerns over the discharge of untreated sewage, marine litter and fly tipping on the foreshore. Adopted by European Union member states in 2000, the Water Framework Directive aims to maintain the quality and enhance the status, including the ecological health, of Europe’s waters. In Spring 2003 the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act (WEWS Act) was adopted by the Scottish Executive setting out key principles and instructions for how the Directive is to be implemented in Scotland. All freshwaters and coastal waters within 3 nautical miles of the shore are included.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) will play the leading role, with participation from local stakeholder groups, by preparing a series of River Basin Management Plans setting out environmental objectives and programmes of action to deliver them.

Shore shellfish Conservation

In some areas, concerns have been expressed about the potentially negative impacts of gathering shore shellfish such as cockles and winkles. Although small-scale gathering is not generally considered to be a problem, if carried out on a large and commercial scale, it can remove a valuable source of food for shore birds.

Grazing Pressure

Grazing is an important factor in maintaining coastal habitats such as saltmarsh and machair, but excessive pressure on the foreshore can have an adverse impact on the habitats of a range of species. Coastal grazing should be managed with biodiversity in mind. Renewable energy As renewable energy technologies develop, there are likely to be new pressures emerging on the marine habitats, including the blocking or alteration of water currents, for solid tidal barriers, which can have drastic effects on marine life. Further research is also required into the potential impacts of undersea cables from offshore windfarms on the migration patterns of cetaceans.

Shipping Disasters

The danger of a ship running aground in our waters was highlighted by the sinking of the Jambo in June 2003, with its cargo of zinc concentrate. In addition to the financial and human costs that may arise from such events, our marine and coastal biodiversity could be severely damaged by pollution from diesel, oil or the ship’s cargo. The Highland Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar are lobbying for the designation of the Minches as a Maritime Environment High Risk Area with Particularly Sensitive Sea Area status, which would enable the UK Government to establish international rules and standards to control shipping in the area. In addition, they are requesting that a number of measures be introduced for vessels carrying over 2,500 tonnes of oil as bunkers or cargo, including the prohibition of single hulled vessels, recommended routing, reporting for transit and compulsory.

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WREN would like to thank the following organisations for their support:
Scottish Natural Heritage
The European Agriculture fund for Rural Development. Europe investing in rural areas
Leader
RSPB
The Highland Council
The Scottish Government

Tom Forrest (Chairman) chair@wr-en.co.uk

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