Freshwater Pearl Mussel

– in the Scottish Parliament on 8th May 2013.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-06401, in the name of Mary Scanlon, on the importance of the freshwater pearl mussel. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises what it considers to be the importance of the freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera); understands that the presence of freshwater pearl mussel is an indicator of high water quality in rivers in the Highlands and Islands and across Scotland where they are known to contribute to the ecology of areas by continuously filtering rivers and keeping the waters pure; believes that high water quality benefits other species and other wildlife associated with rivers, including salmon and otters; understands that the River Spey has one of the most significant populations of freshwater pearl mussels in the world but is concerned that they are reported to be one of the most critically endangered molluscs in the world, partly due to illegal pearl fishing, and that, over the last 100 years, more than one third of the rivers that used to contain freshwater pearl mussel have ceased to do so and that an additional third only contain old ones, with no sign of reproduction, and notes calls for agencies and the public to work together to protect what it sees as this remarkable species and increase its population.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

Some weeks ago, a member of my staff said that Scottish Environment LINK had called to ask whether I would be a species champion. I agreed, and received another call to say that I was the champion for the freshwater pearl mussel. I thought that it was perhaps due to my party’s affection for twinsets and pearls, but I confess that I could not even borrow a Scottish freshwater pearl necklace or brooch for the debate—even the Mrs Carlaws could not oblige.

I did not know much about the freshwater pearl mussel—which is also known as Margaritifera margaritifera—when I became species champion, but I was pleased to know that I could have got the narrow-headed ant, which was given to my colleague Jamie McGrigor.

Like many people, I thought that the freshwater pearl mussel existed to produce fine pearl jewellery. How wrong could I have been? In fact, it is the pearl’s attractiveness as a fine item of jewellery that is one of the major factors leading to the mussel’s decline, even though only about 1 per cent of freshwater mussels contain a pearl.

The oldest known living specimen was 134 years old, and in the past 100 years more than one third of rivers in Scotland that used to contain freshwater pearl mussels no longer do. A further third contain only non-productive mussels, which leaves only one third left with a productive population. There is evidence that, during the past century, pearl mussels became extinct in an average of two rivers every year.

Despite being fully protected since 1998, large numbers of freshwater pearl mussels are still killed illegally each year in Scotland. The on-going threat to the species has made the mussel a United Kingdom wildlife crime priority, with risks including habitat degradation, water pollution, the declining population of the fish hosts and climate change.

That threat is critical in Scotland. Of the 200 rivers in the world that are known to host breeding populations of freshwater pearl mussels, 72—one third of the world’s population—are here in Scotland. Scotland is the global stronghold for the freshwater pearl mussel, which is now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “critically endangered” alongside giant pandas.

The presence of the freshwater pearl mussel in any river depends on the availability of host salmon, and the present decline in stocks of host migratory salmonid fish threatens Scotland’s pearl mussel populations.

In its first year, the pearl mussel lives harmlessly on the gills of a young salmon or trout. As payback for its first year of living on the fish, an adult mussel filters and purifies about 50 litres of water every day, allowing the fish to survive in clean river water.

River engineering and illegal pearl fishing have been responsible for the decline and extinction of many freshwater pearl mussel populations and are among the reasons why the species is threatened. Clean gravel and sand are essential, particularly for juvenile pearl mussels. If the stream or river bottom becomes clogged with silt they cannot obtain oxygen and die.

Having outlined the critical part that this mollusc plays in the ecology of our rivers and river salmon and trout populations, I turn to what happened on the River Lyon in Perthshire, where two contractors destroyed an internationally important colony of this protected species. The court heard that pollution that would last hundreds of years had been caused through work on a hydro scheme that was so disastrous that the basic repair bill ran to almost £1 million. The two contractors were found guilty and were fined £6,000 and £5,000 but their company has since gone into liquidation with £143,000 of debts. One of the men admitted previously destroying a colony of freshwater pearl mussels during another hydro project at Dalmally in Argyll. The contractors were given eight years in which to pay their fines, so it was not much of a deterrent although I understand that it was the first such prosecution in Scotland.

As the species champion, I have submitted quite a few parliamentary questions relating to the species, the work that freshwater pearl mussels do in our rivers in allowing trout and salmon to survive, and the damage that was done to the River Lyon. I would describe the Scottish Government’s answers as ranging from disappointing to dismissive. That is why I have brought the debate to the chamber. More needs to be done, and the Scottish Government has the power to ensure that our freshwater pearl mussels survive.

There needs to be more enforcement by police wildlife crime officers and, as a priority, an assurance given that the species will not diminish following the establishment of the new single police force. There also needs to be more rigorous enforcement of cross-compliance relating to the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (Scotland) Regulations 2006, as well as an assurance from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to strongly protect the water environment even when that conflicts with economic growth and new hydro schemes.

Exploitation of freshwater pearl mussels has taken place since pre-Roman times. The earliest reference in Britain is from Julius Caesar’s biographer, Suetonius, who stated that Caesar’s admiration of pearls was one of the three reasons for the first Roman invasion in 55 BC. Surely if the freshwater pearl mussel was a good enough reason for the Romans to invade Britain, it is a good enough reason for the Scottish Government to make a commitment to do much more to preserve this incredible species.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I congratulate Mary Scanlon on securing this debate on the freshwater pearl mussel and thank Scottish Environment LINK for holding an information session in the Parliament this afternoon. I apologise in advance for having to leave the debate early due to a prior engagement.

The debate is another example of the success of the Scottish Environment LINK species champion initiative. As the champion of two species—the puffin and the lesser butterfly orchid—I understand that it is not enough just to put one’s name to threatened species. We must be active in offering our political support to protect them. MSPs’ enthusiasm has been matched by the support that we receive from the charities and organisations that promote the species. Like other organisations, the RSPB and Plantlife have been very helpful to me in providing support to raise issues that impact on the species, from the long-term challenges around climate change to the impact of the recent storms. The relationships that the initiative has created are helping to raise the profile of Scotland’s biodiversity.

It is not that long since many of us were in the chamber debating the 2010 biodiversity target that Scotland, along with other countries, failed to meet. Concerns were raised about how many threatened species play an important part in our biodiversity. The UK has a large proportion of the species that are threatened in Europe, and we have an important responsibility to make progress on biodiversity targets.

As we have heard, the freshwater pearl mussel is one of the most critically endangered molluscs in the world. As such, it is worthy of championing. In the recent stage 1 debate on the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill, my colleague, Graeme Pearson, spoke about illegal cockle fishing. The bill contains measures to improve detection and prosecution. However, it is not enough to simply pass legislation that defines the ban on pearl or, indeed, cockle fishing; we must ensure that the enforcement measures are robust enough to deal with any illegal fishing that may take place.

Pearl mussels are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but that has not stopped reports of illegal damage taking place each year. In he past five years, the police national wildlife crime unit has recorded at least 10 incidents a year, and estimates put the number of suspected crimes as high as 30 annually. The reality is that the detection of illegal pearl fishing and thus any enforcement are extremely difficult, as offences often take place in remote areas of the country.

To their credit, Scottish Natural Heritage and the police national wildlife crime unit have run awareness-raising events to highlight the signs of illegal pearl fishing. At today’s LINK event, Dr Peter Cosgrove from the University of Aberdeen told us about his work to raise awareness with estate and land managers.

As we near stage 3 of the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill and move on to the future work that is planned by the Scottish Government, this might be a chance to reflect on whether more measures need to be taken to support those working to protect the freshwater pearl mussel from illegal fishing. The freshwater pearl mussel thrives in clean, fast-flowing rivers and streams, so it is positive that more than half the world’s recruiting population exists in Scotland. However, the population is declining rapidly, and illegal pearl fishing is not the only reason why the freshwater pearl mussel is absent from a third of the rivers that it once populated, nor from a further third of rivers where no new freshwater pearl mussels are being produced.

Freshwater pearl mussels are also at threat from pollution. Clean gravel and sand are essential for their survival, particularly the younger mussels. If the river bottom is clogged with silt, they will perish. Pollution directly affects not only the mussels but fish such as salmon and trout.

As the RSPB briefing highlights, tackling illegal activities is about the enforcement and close monitoring of the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011. It raises concerns about illegal activities that damage water quality and habitat going undetected and unenforced. Although compliance with the CAR regime is part of the solution, the RSPB also identifies that more rigorous enforcement of cross-compliance with the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (Scotland) Regulations 2006 is required.

Today’s debate has highlighted how iconic a species for Scotland the freshwater pearl mussel is. We have a responsibility to address the decline and secure the place in Scotland’s future of a species that is admired and coveted around the world. I am pleased that Mary Scanlon will not only champion their survival but—I hope—along with others oversee their ability to thrive in Scotland again.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

I congratulate Mary Scanlon on securing the debate. I agree with many of her arguments and those that were made by Claire Baker.

The cultural elements of pearl fishing are something that we should put on the record. In the song “The Summer Walkers”, Calum and Rory MacDonald of Runrig penned a verse that refers to the heart of my constituency in north-west Sutherland. Since I am not encouraged to sing, I will just have to read it out:

“So have you stood out on Coldbackie

At the time the sun goes down

Or up on the king of campsites

In the hills about Brae Tongue

That’s when music filled your evenings

It’s all so different now, this world

For you were the summer walkers

And the fishers of the pearl.”

That refers to the pearl mussel that Scots Travellers were far famed for fishing, as were the Irish Gypsy Travellers. Those far-off days of the 1950s and 1960s were the end of thousands of years of exploitation of the stocks of pearl mussels by these Travellers.

Tim Neat’s 1996 book “The Summer Walkers” delved into their culture in the footsteps of a tradition collecting expedition by folklorist Hamish Henderson, who joined the Stewarts in Sutherland for their summer walk. The publisher Birlinn noted that in “The Summer Walkers”, Essie Stewart and Eddie Davies are major players. She was born in 1941 and was given away at birth—totally unofficially. She

“came with a letter ... saying that I was given to Mary Stewart of Remarstaig”.

Mary Stewart was the daughter of blind Ailidh Dall, possibly the most famous of 20th century Traveller storytellers, whose stories go back far beyond the Romans; indeed, they go right back into our Celtic past in Brittany and many other places. She was possibly one of the most famous tradition bearers in Scotland, as Hamish Henderson found out.

Essie’s mother was

“by blood less than half a Traveller”,

but Essie

“lived the Traveller life from the day I was born till the day I married, then for twenty five summers I was out on the road as wife of the pearl-fisher, Eddie Davies.”

Essie Stewart is a constituent of mine, whom I know very well. The cultural history of the pearl fishers is kept alive in the Mackay country—“Dùthaich MhicAoidh” is the Gaelic for “country of Mackay”—which refers to the area of north-west Sutherland that I mentioned. The motto of the Mackays is:

“We value and respect our past as much as we strive to make our present and future secure and vibrant. We are on the edge, and what a beautiful edge we are on!”

That means thinking about the pearl mussel and the clean rivers that we have heard about, and talking about the pearl-fishing memories of the travelling people.

The Travellers’ walking route set out from the Kyle of Sutherland and took them by many of the north and west Sutherland straths, glens and rivers that were the havens of the long-lived pearl mussel. Its near extinction from overfishing, pollution and climate change led to its being protected in 1998 and to a string of offences—45 in the past four years. Only a small number of cases reach court and, as with other wildlife crime, the problems of corroboration come into play. That needs to be addressed.

River basin management planning, a captive breeding and release scheme, and awareness raising are key to future statutory action to help the pearl mussel.

I look forward to reading the minister’s response to the debate, as I must beg the Presiding Officer’s permission to leave the debate early to attend to an unexpected but urgent piece of business. I fully support Mary Scanlon’s motion.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I think that everyone would agree that the pearl mussel—or Margaritifera margaritifera, as it is called—has a wonderful champion in Mary Scanlon; I would not want to be anyone who interfered with it. I think that she is the first MSP species champion to have secured a debate on their species, for which she is to be commended. I will take the opportunity to namecheck the two species that I am championing: the narrow-headed ant, as has been mentioned, and the marsh fritillary butterfly.

I thank RSPB Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK for their briefing material. In conducting my research for the debate, I found it fascinating to learn more about the biology of the species, as well as its long history in Scotland, to which Mary Scanlon referred. With a lifespan of 100 years or more, the pearl mussel is one of the longest-living invertebrates in existence. One specimen that was found in Estonia was 134 years old and, according to the verbal briefing that we received today, it is possible that there are freshwater mussels in Russia that are more than 200 years old. We should think about aII the history that has passed them by, let alone the water. The fact that an adult mussel can filter 50 litres of water a day—which is an amazing volume, given its size—is extremely important for water quality.

In the past, pearl mussels were fished in Scottish rivers. Some of the pearl fishermen were clever enough to use reversible callipers to open a mussel, check if there was a pearl inside, extract it and close the mussel without causing significant damage, but those people were experts whose families had followed that hunter-gatherer way of life for generations and who wanted to make their livelihoods sustainable. Modern day illegal chancers and cowboys who use penknives just leave a trail of death and destruction, and what has been there for hundreds of years can be destroyed in minutes through sheer ignorance and greed.

As we have heard, despite the fact that pearl mussels now enjoy full legal protection, there are real concerns about the population numbers of what is a critically endangered species. Indeed, according to some estimates, it is in the top 400 most endangered species on the planet.

Threats come from not only the aforementioned illegal pearl fishing but habitat degradation or destruction, pollution and climate change. The declining population of wild salmon and trout in some areas, which is an issue that I have raised many times before, is also important as pearl mussels spend the earlier part of their life cycle developing harmlessly in the gills of salmon and trout. Those are the spats or future seedcorn, and the salmon and trout are the taxis that take them to their future living quarters. Isn’t nature wonderful?

The decline in salmon and trout stocks is a particular concern on the west and north-west coasts of the Highlands and Islands and it is essential that the reasons for those declines are more fully investigated, especially as east and north coast runs appear to be faring much better. The protection and enhancement of our pearl mussel stocks are another reason for better understanding and responding to the declines in salmon and trout numbers; after all, if we have no salmon and trout in our rivers, we will have no pearl mussels either. It is all the same ecosystem.

As for the suggestion that the public tackle the very serious destruction of pearl mussels as others search for the rare pearls that are found in only 1 per cent of them, they and all of us in this Parliament must send out the very clear message now that such activity is illegal and totally unacceptable. If people see suspicious activity or, say, shells lying about on riverbanks, they should not hesitate to contact their local police station and ask for the wildlife crime officer.

Today’s debate is welcome, and I am pleased that it has helped to raise awareness of the very real threat to the future of this species. If Scotland and other developed countries are to persuade less enlightened nations of the need to conserve their endangered species, we must preserve—and be seen to be preserving—the rare species that we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep. [Interruption.] Thank you very much, Presiding Officer, and I apologise for my phone going off.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Richard Lyle—and we will ignore the ringing phone.

Photo of Richard Lyle Richard Lyle Scottish National Party

I thank Mary Scanlon for securing this debate on an important and concerning issue. As a member of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, I am greatly interested in the situation that faces the freshwater pearl mussel, so I want to thank Dr Peter Cosgrove and his team for providing me with information at today’s drop-in session, and Buglife for the information that it provided.

Capable of living up to 130 years, the freshwater pearl mussel begins its life as a minute larva that is, along with 1 million to 4 million other larvae, ejected into the water from an adult mussel. That remarkable event takes place between July and September. In order to live the larva must snap shut on a suitable host fish—often young fish from the salmon family, which includes Atlantic salmon and sea trout. As the chances of a larva encountering a suitable fish are very low, nearly all of them are swept away and die; only a few are inhaled by an Atlantic salmon or sea trout , and when that happens they snap shut on to the fish’s gills for nine or so months. Finally, they land on sand and begin to grow on their own. I highlight that process to show not only the complexity but the natural beauty of those events.

The issue that has been raised by Mary Scanlon is important; because freshwater pearl mussels are more sensitive to pollution than any other river creature, they are a crucial indicator of river-water quality. They are critically endangered and remain at risk from a range of factors, including water pollution, the ruining of their habitats, climate change, illegal pearl fishing and overexploitation. As with most things, some factors arise because of human error. We continue to pollute our water with septic tanks while engineering works also compromise the mussels’ habitats. As we know too well, climate change is also having a negative impact.

Scotland is abundant in biodiversity, by which I mean the variety of life. Biodiversity is essential in sustaining the ecosystems and life systems that provide us with the food we need, the fuel we use to get around, the health we enjoy, the wealth we have and other vital services.

We are all part of that biodiversity, and we have the power to protect or destroy it. That power is a privilege and a responsibility. The actions that we take have a direct impact on life around us. Mary Scanlon has highlighted well the point that we must do something now in order to protect, in the future, freshwater pearl mussels as well as other creatures. RSPB Scotland has stated:

“Urgent action is needed to protect remaining pearl mussel populations.”

I am sure that members across the chamber agree with that sentiment, as I do.

There is never a quick fix for such problems, but we can take actions to alleviate the problem and to prevent it from getting any worse. Adult mussels can be transferred to areas in which they are extinct, young mussels can be cultivated, and juvenile trout that have been infected with the larvae can be released into small rivers, but the main successes lie in habitat restoration projects. There is also the essential role that salmon play in the life of the freshwater pearl mussel. The conservation of salmon and trout is central to the survival of that endangered species. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has begun to work to address those issues.

I thank Mary Scanlon again for bringing the issue to the chamber. As a grandfather, I feel that it is important and right that the Parliament and the Government take stock of the issue and continue to address the problems that have been outlined.

On the Roman link, I am sure that Julius Caesar invaded Britain to control the pearl trade. Let us ensure that we take action so that no one can say, “Et tu, Brute?”

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The freshwater pearl mussel has joined the panda on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of endangered species, which many people regard as the barometer of life. However, it is fair to say that the freshwater pearl mussel has not received a fraction of the coverage that the panda has, so I thank Mary Scanlon for raising awareness of the importance of the species in this debate. I, too, have no doubt that Scottish Environment LINK’s innovative species champion initiative has already raised awareness of the challenges that many of our native wildlife species face.

The freshwater pearl mussel finds itself on the red list of endangered species due to its unprecedented worldwide decline during the latter part of the 20th century. As we have heard—it is worth repeating—pollution from pesticides, fertilisers and other contaminants, siltation, climate change and declines in host-fish populations are all partly responsible for that. These rare and long-living mussels—they commonly reach ages of over 120 years—are also very vulnerable to disturbances from engineering works in rivers. Silt contamination makes it difficult for the mussels to feed and it can kill adults. Buglife has reported cases of river disturbance that have resulted in animals that were born when Charles Darwin was alive floating out of their beds and being swept into the sea. As Jamie McGrigor commented, it is all the same ecosystem. I am honoured to champion the brown hare, but the point is that all species depend on a clean, protected and safe environment.

The pearl mussel is on the brink in Scotland. Its population—like ours—is ageing. The youngest individuals in some rivers are 40 years old. Despite the fact that it is an offence to intentionally kill, injure, take or disturb freshwater pearl mussels or their habitat, criminal activity remains a major threat. As we have heard, enforcement is wanting and deterrents are often too weak to deter, so we need to ensure that there are sufficient resources in place to prevent criminal activity from further decimating this endangered species, and that such action is taken seriously.

I thank Buglife and RSPB Scotland for ensuring that we understand the importance of a too-often-overlooked species. Members will note—Mary Scanlon commented on this—that the RSPB welcomes in its very helpful briefing the wider range of sanctions that are proposed in the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Bill, including fixed and variable monetary penalties, but it is concerned that the duty that is proposed for SEPA to promote sustainable economic growth will conflict with strong protection for the water environment.

The United Nations environmental programme reported previously that there are some 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean. Much of that rubbish began its journey to the sea in our local rivers and waterways. For too long, our rivers and seas have been regarded as convenient places in which to dump all manner of things. Our burns, rivers and seas are living, breathing ecosystems, but general rubbish, from shopping trolleys to the ubiquitous plastic bag, is found in too many of our waterways.

We need to improve and invest in education, protection and enforcement. We need to ensure that the most stringent regulations apply to those important ecosystems. I would be very grateful if in his summing up the minister could provide details of what measures his Government is taking to improve the conservation and cleanliness of our rivers and their associated ecosystems, how we can further raise awareness of the importance of the freshwater pearl mussel species and what further controls on illegal pearl fishing might be applied—for example, limiting the trade and encouraging higher levels of reporting of suspicious activity.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call on Paul Wheelhouse to respond to the debate. Minister, you have seven minutes.

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I thank Mary Scanlon for her motion and for raising awareness of the importance of the state of the freshwater pearl mussel. I echo the points that have been made about the species champion roles, which are proving to be highly effective.

As we have heard from Mary Scanlon and others, freshwater pearl mussels are dangerously close to extinction. However, despite freshwater pearl mussels’ low numbers in absolute terms, Scotland’s rivers are a global stronghold for the species. For example, as others have said, in Scotland at present there are 106 known populations of freshwater pearl mussels, which equates to around half—rather than a third, as Mary Scanlon said—of the world’s populations, which is why we in Scotland have a special responsibility for the species.

The importance of the freshwater pearl mussel goes beyond its rarity. The presence of rare freshwater mussels is an excellent indicator of water quality. The mussel needs pristine water to survive, and its continued presence in our river systems is a sign that there is clean, fresh water, which we all need; in many ways, the species is a bellwether for the condition of our ecosystems.

As Mary Scanlon, Jamie McGrigor and Richard Lyle have acknowledged, the life cycle of the mussel is itself fascinating. Not only do pearl mussels live for more than 100 years, the very youngest pearl mussels cannot survive without living on fish gills and they therefore have a symbiotic relationship with our freshwater fisheries. As Richard Lyle and other members have said, young mussels harmlessly attach themselves to the gills of juvenile salmon or trout over their first winter, before detaching themselves to live in the river bed. They therefore have a close relationship with salmonids, which themselves are a vital part of the ecosystems of Scottish rivers.

The freshwater pearl mussel inhabits coarse sand and gravel beds of fast-flowing, non-calcareous streams and rivers, which are ones that are not alkaline. There are approximately 69 recruiting or viable populations with juveniles present in Scotland, mostly in the north and west, as others have said, with scattered records of the species elsewhere. Few viable populations occur elsewhere in the British isles or even the rest of Europe.

Turning to the conservation status of the species, I note that a £3.5 million LIFE+ programme nature project called pearls in peril is being led by Scottish Natural Heritage. It runs from 2012 to 2016 and in Scotland focuses on 19 special areas of conservation that have been identified as the most important for the freshwater pearl mussel’s continued survival. The project aims to improve water quality and physical habitat for the benefit of the freshwater pearl mussel and to communicate with local, national and international audiences to raise awareness of freshwater pearl mussel conservation issues. A national survey of freshwater pearl mussels to determine the status of the species has just begun and is expected to be completed by early 2015.

On-going projects include assessing the success of reintroducing freshwater pearl mussels to rivers that once supported them. The hope is that it will be worth while seeding more rivers, which is a point that I think Jamie McGrigor made. Further research is being undertaken into the relationship between freshwater pearl mussels and their host salmonids. SNH and SEPA are sponsoring a PhD student at the University of Stirling who, among other things, is investigating the effects of high flows on freshwater pearl mussels and what rainfall increase related to climate change might mean for the species. Management measures aimed at enhancing salmonid fish stocks are also important, as those fish are an essential link in the pearl mussel’s life cycle.

Other works that have been undertaken and which inform our strategy for the conservation of the species include, as Rob Gibson said, the river basin management plans that were published in 2009. Those set out objectives to reduce the impacts of diffuse pollution from agriculture on our water environment. Given the pearl mussel’s need for purity of water supply, those objectives are critical to its future.

Certain key catchments, which contain some of Scotland’s most important waters in the context of conservation, are failing to meet environmental standards due to the impact of diffuse pollution. That is an on-going challenge, to which we are responding. Those catchments have been identified by SEPA as priority catchments, and it is especially important that we take action to improve their water quality.

In the first river basin planning cycle, 14 priority catchments were selected, using a risk-based approach. Three of those—the South Esk, in Angus, and the Dee and the Deveron, in Aberdeenshire—have important freshwater pearl mussel populations.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

I will be very brief. Has additional action been taken following the incident in the River Lyon?

Photo of Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I will come on to that, if Mrs Scanlon will bear with me.

The focus of the work was to collect information on diffuse pollution sources, but information on other impacts on the river, such as erosion and sedimentation, was also collected. The information has been discussed with land managers and immediate mitigation measures have been put in place, where possible. The work has been carried out with the support of local land managers, NFU Scotland and associated fishery boards and catchment groups.

I have spoken at length about what we are doing to conserve the freshwater pearl mussel. We also need to protect the species against illegal activity, which in some cases irretrievably damages entire populations. The legal framework that protects freshwater pearl mussels is strong. Freshwater pearl mussels are a UK biodiversity action plan priority species and are included on the Scottish biodiversity list. The species is listed in annex 2 and annex 5 of the European habitats directive and in schedule 5 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

As members said, since 1998 it has been an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure, take or disturb freshwater pearl mussels or damage their habitat; to possess mussels or pearls collected since 1998; and to sell or advertise for sale freshwater pearl mussels or their pearls, unless that is done under licence from the Scottish Government.

Crimes against freshwater pearl mussels come in two forms: pearl fishing and illegal works. As I think Mary Scanlon was the first to acknowledge, the irony is that the main problem for those who want to steal pearls from our Scottish species is that very few mussels actually contain a pearl. That means that hundreds of mussels are needlessly and wastefully pulled from the river bed, including immature mussels, which would not be capable of yielding a pearl, only to be discarded dead on the riverbank. That is a disgusting waste. As mussels are slow growing and can live for 100 years, it is easy to see how such thoughtless destruction can wipe out a whole colony in one go. That is why we must pursue people who perpetrate such despicable acts.

However, the vast majority of damage comes from illegal works carried out in or around rivers. Anyone who wishes to carry out work must first obtain appropriate licences and must then carry out the work under the supervision of SNH and SEPA, as required. The requirement is non-negotiable, and land managers must realise that there is no excuse for ignoring it.

It is frustrating that incidents that damage freshwater pearl mussels could be avoided in all cases if consultation with SEPA and SNH took place and the proper consents and licences were obtained. The catastrophic chain of events in the river Lyon need not have happened if someone from the firms involved had taken responsibility for ensuring that proper processes were in place.

SNH has part-funded a special investigations officer in the national wildlife crime unit, Charlie Everitt—he is in the gallery today. His priority function is enforcement against freshwater pearl mussel crime. I think that Rob Gibson said that there have been 45 offences in the past five years, but it is encouraging that, in the past two years, the number dropped to four cases and then to two cases, so I hope that the national wildlife crime unit’s work is having an effect.

Charlie Everitt has led an NWCU operation to ascertain whether there is a demand for pearls under the counter in Scottish jewellers. It appears from that work that pearls are not in high demand in Scotland. However, it is clear that there is a demand somewhere for pearls. I am advised that work has been done with the UK Border Agency to help to detect trade out of the UK and gather information about foreign markets.

The partnership for action against wildlife crime—PAW Scotland—is finalising work with various organisations on the reporting of suspicious activity. It is also preparing briefing materials and maps for wildlife crime officers in targeted police stations. It is even exploring the use of genetics as a new forensic tool. I hope that that addresses some of Alison Johnstone’s points about detection.

As part of a large LIFE+ project, moves are afoot to recruit a riverwatcher to launch riverwatch schemes in north and west Scotland, where the species is strongest.

As I said, the species is threatened not only by pearl fishing but by pollution and illegal riverworks. Time is against me, so suffice it to say that I will be happy to meet Mary Scanlon to explain what measures are in place in relation to hydro power schemes and to talk about SEPA’s work on environmental impact assessment.

The concern that has been expressed about a watering down of SEPA’s duty to protect the environment is quite unfounded. I hope that as work on the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Bill unfolds, people will realise that it is about making regulation more coherent, transparent and easy to understand and not about diluting the impact of regulation.

This is the year of natural Scotland. I am grateful to Mary Scanlon for her attention to such an important species. We all have a duty of care towards our native species, and although the freshwater pearl mussel might not have the charisma of the red squirrel or provide the spectacle of the sky-dancing hen harrier, it is a species of global conservation concern, which plays a vital role in the ecosystems of our rivers. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure that the species is protected for future generations, as part of our natural heritage. The Scottish Government intends to play its full part in that commitment.

Meeting closed at 17:45.