Marine garden of Eden is discovered off coast of Skye

30-year fishing ban in Inner Hebrides leads to unprecedented growth of stocks
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The Independent Online

Deep under the steel-grey water of the Inner Hebrides, a multi-coloured marine Eden is taking shape, The Independent on Sunday has discovered.

Thanks to the coastal waters beside the Isle of Skye being unmolested by man for three decades, fish, plants and animals are thriving in a way unprecedented in modern times.

Tiny fire anemones, starfish and brittle-star roam among large fields of sea pen, a form of soft coral, while the valuable Norwegian prawn grows to sizes rarely seen around Britain. Increasingly-large shoals of plaice, haddock, whiting and cod pass overhead. It is a rare glimpse into the way our seas used to be - and could still be if fishing bans were introduced.

This unique area sits at the heart of a 40sq km zone of the Inner Hebrides set aside for a successful marine conservation initiative designed to build a lucrative prawn fishing industry for coastal villages in remote areas.

This unofficial marine nature reserve is a secret military testing range that has been closed off to fishing for the past 30 years, giving scientists an unprecedented chance to measure the impacts of strict controls on trawlers.

The 10sq km range, used chiefly for secret torpedo trials by Britain's submarine fleet, has become a haven for sea life - particularly the valuable Norwegian prawn, Nephrops norvegicus.

It is populated by the largest Norwegian prawns in the area. Protected by the 30-year ban on fishing, they live to full maturity and are believed to provide "seed stock" for much of the local area. As a result, local fishermen flock to the area.

The success of the prawn fishery has lifted the local economy. The largest prawns sell for £30 a kilo in seafood restaurants in Galicia. Caught in rope creels rather than industrial trawler nets, they are landed daily in a tiny bay on Loch Torridon, in north-west Scotland, and air-freighted - live - to Spain.

Local fisherman once had a thriving cod and herring fishing industry but it collapsed about 20 years ago, when the Government lifted a ban on trawler fishing close to shore. Now, thanks to the ban on trawling, the prawn fishery employs two dozen local fisherman full-time and earns a local company, Shieldaig Export, more than £1.4m a year - making it the largest employer in the area.

Two years ago, it was awarded Marine Stewardship Council approval by Prince Charles for its exceptional environmental performance.

Marine scientists say it is a model for the strict controls on fishing that are needed nationwide if Britain's fish stocks are to recover. The latest government assessment saystwo-thirds of British fish stocks are being too heavily fished. Environment ministers are planning strict controls on fishing as part of a new Marine Bill due to be unveiled this year.

David Donnan, a marine expert at Scottish Natural Heritage, the official conservation agency, said: "The measures they've introduced there are exactly the kind of pro-active, sensible kind which should be happening in many fisheries, not just prawn fisheries."

But the project has been a victim of its own success. More and more fishermen are coming into the area risking it becoming over-fished again. The scheme's supporters are pressing for limits on the number of fisherman allowed there.

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