Plans for a large fish farm in the Wester Ross Marine Protected Area have been criticised by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
The conservation charity has objected to the siting of the salmon farm close to Horse Island in the Summer Isles, saying it could damage fragile marine habitats.
It is feared that waste material generated by the farm would damage several protected features.
Scottish Sea Farms has applied to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) to licence the farm, which will create six new jobs and a modern apprenticeship.
The threatened habitats act as nurseries for a range of marine wildlife including scallops and lobsters. A number of the areas are also increasingly recognised as vital stores of blue carbon. Maerl, a type of algae similar to coral, can lock up carbon on the seabed for thousands of years.
Scottish Sea Farms has reduced its original proposal from 14 cages with a biomass of 1,973 tonnes to eight pens with 1,100 tonnes.
Dr Sam Collin, Scottish Wildlife Trust’s living seas manager, said: “We support sustainable aquaculture and we want to see Scotland’s fish farming sector operating in a way that is compatible with a thriving marine environment.
“The site proposed by Scottish Sea Farms is entirely unsuitable due to its proximity to important protected habitats. These plans pose a serious threat to marine wildlife, stores of blue carbon, and the local creel fishing industry.
“Scotland is facing a biodiversity and climate crisis. Protecting the health of Scotland’s seas with an effective network on protected areas is increasingly important. Allowing this salmon farm to go ahead when it threatens so many of the features which should be safeguarded by the Marine Protected Area would set a worrying precedent.”
Scottish Sea Farms’ said that several of its fish farms are already located in MPAs and the two can co-exist.
The company is carrying out a consultation process and is keen to work with the community.
Managing director Jim Gallagher said: “It’s absolutely right that sensitive habitats and species be protected and we’ve taken great care from the outset to ensure there’s no overlap between the proposed farm and priority marine features such as the maerl beds and other marine plants and animals they are home to. Several of our farms are already located in marine protected areas – our nearby farms at Tanera and Fada included – proving that, with responsible and sympathetic farm management, both can co-exist.
“By exercising due diligence at each step of process, our aim is deliver a win-win outcome for the Summer Isles community: the creation of highly skilled, highly paid jobs and modern apprenticeships, while at the same time protecting its healthy marine environment for generations to come. In terms of the wider environment meanwhile, the new farm would enable us to provide more healthy, nutritious seafood via one of the lowest carbon farming sectors there is.
“For now though, the consultation process is very much ongoing, with plenty of opportunity for community input. We welcome that input, we’re listening and we’re keen to address any concerns that might exist.”
The initial proposal was reduced from 14 cages to 12 following consultation with Coigach Community Council. It was later further reduced to eight to comply with Sepa’s new regulations.
A full Environmental Impact Assessment has been prepared by independent environmental consultants Aquatera, with consideration of the MPA. It will be made publicly available at the next stage of the consultation process.