A new deep sea marine reserve could be created off the Outer Hebrides to protect vulnerable habitats and species, it has emerged.
The Scottish Government has announced that it will launch a consultation on the plan and hope to have it established by the end of next year.
No location has been given for the new reserve, but the newly-published programme for government 2018/19 states that the reserve would aim to protect coral gardens and the leafscale gulper shark, among other species.
The leafscale gulper shark is found off the far west and north-west coasts of Scotland, while Marine Scotland has stated that there are coral gardens located on the Anton Dohrn sea mount, which is in a similar area in the Rockall Trough in the north-east Atlantic.
The government’s programme also confirmed plans to hold a consultation on four new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), with a view to the sites being designated by the end of 2019.
The MPAs would be at the Southern Trench between Buckie and Peterhead, the Shiant East Bank in the North Minch, and the nearby North East Lewis and the Sea of the Hebrides.
Environmental campaigners have long called for the establishment of the extra zones to safeguard the eco-systems, with the waters known to be populated by Risso’s dolphins, minke whales and other species.
Meanwhile, ministers have also pledged to identify actions to address significant declines in seabird populations, such as puffins, through a new Seabird Conservation Strategy.
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell said: “While the wider programme for government is lacking in environmental ambition, it’s good to see a guarantee to progress work to protect Scotland’s seas and coasts.
“Four marine protection areas to safeguard whales, dolphins, sharks and other marine life were part of the 2018-19 budget deal Greens negotiated with the Scottish Government. This will benefit our coastal communities and the wildlife tourism economy.”
Anne McCall, director of RSPB Scotland, said: “We are delighted that the programme includes a commitment to a new seabird conservation strategy and look forward to contributing ideas and working with partners to design and deliver it.
“This needs to be supported by appropriate resources if it is to achieve meaningful outcomes.”