World’s biggest flame shell bed found on West Coast

A flame shell on a shallow water maerl bed in outer Loch Carron

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The world’s largest known colony of a brilliant but shy species of shellfish has been discovered in a West Coast loch.

An eye-watering quarter of a billion flame shells have been found living in nests which have merged to form a huge 185 hectare bed at the bottom of Loch Carron, covering much of the tide-swept seafloor of the Strome Narrows, from Craig to Stromeferry.

It is two and a half times larger than a colony of more than 100 million flame shells discovered in Loch Alsh in 2012, which was previously thought to be the biggest.

Flame shells are small bivalve molluscs with fiery orange tentacles. Flame shells spend most of their lives completely hidden away inside nests, built from old shells, stones and other materials around them and bound together with thin wiry threads.

Flame shell beds are extremely sensitive to physical disturbance, such as dredging. Substantial and persistent declines have been observed raising widespread concern about the conservation of this species and habitat it creates.

A painted goby on the North Strome maerl bed, Loch Carron
A painted goby on the North Strome maerl bed, Loch Carron

Ministers will now seek to make the emergency measures put in place to protect the reef permanent. A Marine Protected Area (MPA) designated on an urgent basis lasts for a maximum of two years but the intention is to make Loch Carron a permanent MPA. A public consultation on making the site a permanent addition to the Scottish MPA network is anticipated in 2018.

In April, a scallop dredger dragged its gear through the reef on two occasions causing damage from which it is likely to take decades to recover.

Dredging involves towing gear across the seabed to scrape-up the scallops which live there. The dredger which damaged the Loch Carron reef was operating legally because no protection measures existed at the time. Fishing on Loch Carron was immediately banned and divers have been assessing the size of the reef.

The discovery was made during a joint Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Marine Scotland (MS) and Heriot-Watt University (HWU) survey to learn more about habitats in Loch Carron.

Mike Cantlay, SNH’s chair, said: ‘Scotland’s seas clearly still have many secrets left to tell. This is a remarkable discovery.’

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: ‘This is a fantastic discovery which shows that the new Marine Protected Area is making an even more valuable contribution to safeguarding these waters than we first thought.

Dr Dan Harries, of Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Life and Earth Sciences which who led the diving fieldwork, said: ‘This is another fantastic discovery. We really didn’t think we’d find a bed that could top the 100,000,000 find in Loch Alsh. This is a great example of partnership working across Government departments, SNH and academia to deliver a timely and scientifically robust response.’