Marine surveys for Firth of Clyde

Two surveys to find out more about marine life off the west coast of Scotland have got underway.

Funded by Marine Scotland (MS), the exploration of the waters in the Firth of Clyde and Loch Sween, near Lochgilphead, is part of an extensive programme of marine research led by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and MS. The results will help Government and others plan for the sustainable management of the seas.

The Firth of Clyde survey will focus on Loch Goil and the seabed to the south of Arran, and will be carried out by staff from SNH and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). It builds on survey work from 2012, which recorded a total of more than 250 different marine plants and animals in the firth, including a large area of brightly coloured flame shells in upper Loch Fyne, which covers 50 hectares.

The Loch Sween survey will cover the seabed of the loch as well as the tide-swept waters of the Sound of Jura, around the Island of Danna and the McCormaig Isles. It will be carried out by SNH and Heriot-Watt University.

Both survey teams want to update existing knowledge about key habitats in the areas covered, such as burrowed mud and maerl beds. Drop-down video cameras will be used to record undersea footage, with ‘grab’ samples taken from the seabed for more in-depth analysis. In Loch Sween divers will also carry out detailed surveys of specific wildlife features. The information gathered will be used to map the habitats of conservation interest.

Both areas were put forward to the Scottish Parliament in December 2012 as part of a network of 33 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) proposals. Scottish Ministers are currently considering which of the proposed sites will be formally consulted on this summer.

Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead said: “I’m sure many people will be looking forward to finding out more of the secrets of Scotland’s seas through surveys of our seabeds.

“Surveys add to the existing knowledge we have of Scotland’s seas as well as enriching our understanding of our marine heritage - last year a survey uncovered charismatic flame shell beds in Loch Alsh.”

Ben James, SNH’s MPA project manager, explained: “Parts of the Firth of Clyde and Loch Sween are really special for their marine wildlife. As we move towards the consultation on the MPA proposals, it is essential that we have a good understanding of the distribution of the important marine wildlife in these areas to help with discussions on possible management. For example, we need to know more about the distribution of ocean quahog clams around South Arran; these are amongst the longest-lived animals on earth. We also need to find out if the Loch Goil sea squirt, a rare species in the UK, found only in this sea loch in Scotland, is actually still around – it hasn’t been seen since it was first recorded in 1989.”

Sandy Downie, SEPA’s Marine Ecology unit manager, added: “As part of the ongoing collaborative work on MPAs it is essential that, where possible, we share access to resources. This includes the use of our survey vessel, the Sir John Murray, which will be used during the upcoming activity. Through this partnership approach, SEPA is helping SNH gain a better understanding of these areas to inform Scottish Ministers.”

Colin Moore of Heriot-Watt University said: “Early results from the Sween survey are most encouraging, suggesting that the loch contains one of the best and most extensive UK examples of an unusual habitat, characterised by a muddy seabed formed into dense volcanoes up to one metre in size created by 30 cm long spoon worms.”

The survey of the Firth of Clyde will last two weeks, while the survey of Loch Sween will be carried out over two months.