SCOTLAND’s network of marine protected areas (MPAs) must be utilised to help determine the impact of fishing on the seabed , according to a new study.

The University of Glasgow report – commissioned by Scottish Environment LINK’s Marine Group – said the MPAs could also inform whether further conservation measures were needed to recover the health of Scotland’s seafloor and meet international legal commitments.

LINK commissioned the study to understand if current conservation measures will be sufficient to recover Scotland’s depleted seabed and meet targets set under EU and domestic law.

It is widely accepted that bottom-towed fishing gears can destroy or seriously degrade fragile habitats such as corals, maerl and living reefs such as the flameshells in Loch Carron, but their impact on less vulnerable habitats is less clear and the subject of debate.

The report concluded that to assess progress towards international commitments to improving the seafloor’s health, Scotland’s MPAs must be well-managed and adequately monitored.

However, it said at present there was not enough information about current and pre-modified seafloor conditions to properly do this.

Dr Charlotte Hopkins, marine scientist at the University of Glasgow, said: “What must be demonstrated is that the seafloor, including the species and habitats that exist there, must have the ability to rapidly recover to a natural state in the absence of pressures such as certain types of fishing gear.

“If recovery cannot be demonstrated within MPAs, this will be evidence of unsustainable use of the seas on a broader scale.

“This will depend on comprehensive scientific monitoring of the MPA network to make sure that change can be measured.”

Calum Duncan, head of conservation Scotland for the Marine Conservation Society and convener of LINK’s Marine Group added: “The proof will be in the pudding. If Scotland’s MPAs are effectively monitored, we can find out whether protection measures are adequate and whether wider seabed use outside of MPAs is sustainable.

“This report highlights that we simply don’t know enough about whether existing and proposed MPAs, and other spatial measures, are sufficient to enable the seafloor to be healthy and used in a truly sustainable way.”