A scheme is being launched in the Lochinver area of West Sutherland in a bid to crack down on recent illegal pearl fishing.
Investigators in the Riverwatch initiative, part of the LIFE + Pearls in Peril Project, have found three incidents of illegal pearl fishing recently in different rivers in West Sutherland.
Pearl fishing is an extremely destructive process that devastates populations of vulnerable pearl mussels. The critically endangered mussels are long-lived and vulnerable to illegal acts of fishing. They have a fascinating life cycle, and their presence in water means it is of a high standard and therefore likely to support angling and other pursuits of benefit to the economy.
In the biggest incident thousands of empty shells have been found discarded within a river. This has resulted in most of the population in the river being killed. As pearl mussels are very slow growing, it will likely take decades for the population to recover. So this single incident will have a severely undermine conservation efforts that are underway to help restore the population.
The recent kills in Assynt have caused dismay among conservationists, who insisted that the freshwater pearl mussel, as an iconic species, needs to be understood and appreciated more in order for the true effects of these criminal acts to be understood.
Scotland’s rivers, including those in Assynt, contain as many of the world’s most important remaining pearl mussel populations. This places a great responsibility on us to ensure the pearl mussel continues to survive.
Chief Inspector Colin Gough, Wildlife Crime Co-ordinator for the Highlands, said: “Police Scotland fully supports the Riverwatch scheme operating in the west of Sutherland, which assists with disseminating information to reduce crime against freshwater pearl mussels, in addition to encouraging the reporting of illegal pearl fishing.
“Protected by law, freshwater pearl mussels are a very important part of a river’s habitat, with illegal pearl fishing having the potential to devaste their fragile populations. Police Scotland will continue to work in close partnership with the Pearls in Peril LIFE + project by supporting their river patrols, investigating any reports of this type of crime and undertaking enforcement action wherever possible.”
Louise Batchelor, spokesperson for Paw Scotland, the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, said:”We are so privileged to have freshwater pearl mussels in Scotland and it is just heartbreaking when criminals destroy them in reckless acts of vandalism. Their true value is in our best rivers not as part of the grubby, illegal trade in our precious wildlife. Everyone with an interest in the countryside can help combat this crime.”
Pearl fishing involves breaking open the mussel shell to look for pearls. These only very rarely form inside the pearl mussel.
“Pearl fishing damages already threatened populations of a species that is significantly important to the Highland region as it one of the few remaining strongholds for the mussel species. We are committed to taking action to prevent further illegal acts of fishing and we are now working with Police Scotland and other partners to ensure that this is stamped out in this area of Assynt.” Natalie Young, Riverwatcher, Pearls in Peril Project.
A Riverwatch scheme will be launched in the area to provide local communities with information about pearl mussel crime and details of how to report it. The Riverwatch scheme works in collaboration with landowners, local communities, river users, fishery boards / trusts and Police Scotland and aims to reduce pearl mussel crime by raising awareness of the threats to freshwater pearl mussels. Any suspicious activity should be reported to the Police or to the Riverwatcher. Look out for piles of shells in the river or the bank, persons wading in the river with a glass bottom bucket, or any works on rivers that may disturb pearl mussel habitat.
The scheme will launch this evening (20 November) at 7.45pm Assynt Centre at Kirk Road in Lochinver and is being held by the Assynt Field Club.