Surveillance of a Highland river system is to be stepped up to combat pearl poachers.
The Riverwatch scheme will launch in the Kyle of Sutherland area on 15 September to protect and monitor fragile populations of freshwater pearl mussels.
Riverwatch schemes form part of the Pearls in Peril LIFE + project, a partnership set up to safeguard the future of the species.
The scheme will focus on the Special Area of Conservation (SAC)-designated rivers the Oykel and the Evelix. It will also target other rivers in the area such as the Cassley and the Shin.
Project Riverwatcher Natalie Young said: “The freshwater pearl mussel is critically endangered and the populations in Scottish rivers are globally important.
“Pearl mussels live on the river bed and feed by drawing in water and filtering out fine particles keeping our rivers clean. They are an important species ecologically as they keep water clean for other river wildlife like salmon and trout. And salmon and trout fishing is worth millions to the Scottish economy, so it makes sense to keep our ‘river purifiers’ fit and healthy for future generations.”
She added: “Freshwater pearl mussels have historically been ‘fished’ for the pearl they may contain, but the mussels only very rarely produce pearls and pearl fishing can be devastating to the remaining pearl mussel populations.”
Chief Inspector Colin Gough said: “Police Scotland welcome and support the Riverwatch scheme in the Kyle of Sutherland, which can help to spread information to reduce crime against freshwater pearl mussels and encourage the reporting of illegal pearl fishing. Freshwater pearl mussels are an important part of a river’s habitat and are protected by law.
“I would urge the public and river users to be vigilant, and report any suspicious activity to Police Scotland on 101 or to Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.”
Ms Young said that protecting mussel populations is even more important following recent Hurricane Bertha-related spates and floods that scoured many river beds, dislodging mussels that were then left high and dry.
“In some locations the damage has been immense,” she said.
Fishing for pearls is illegal as they are protected under schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure or take pearl mussels and to destroy, damage or disturb pearl mussel habitats. This includes unauthorised modification or engineering to the river and any activities causing excessive silt or pollution.