HERITAGE bosses are looking for firms to repopulate Scotland’s rivers with fresh water mussels – after pearl hunters took the species to the brink of extinction.
Three separate kills of the threatened mollusc were recorded in the west of Scotland last month.
But the EU has banned fishing for the mussels and it is a criminal offence to disturb or kill them – it can attract a fine of up to £5,000.
Scottish National Heritage (SNH) said the freshwater pearl mussel is a globally at risk species with Scotland homing some of the largest remaining populations.
The recent kills -discovered in Harris, Skye and Lochaber – are said to have put those pockets of mussels at risk of extinction.
And the head of the UK National Wildlife crime unit, Detective Inspector Brian Stuart, has urged Scots to be on the look out for tell-tale signs of pearl-hunting.
DI Stuart said: “It is evident that a small but active group of individuals are actively plundering this species from the rivers for the prize of the freshwater pearl.
“It is important that as we approach the summer months when the species become more vulnerable, members of the public visiting our countryside remain alert.”
Now SNH have asked businesses to bid for a contract to replenish the depleted stocks in up to four – as yet unnamed – Scottish rivers.
They are asking firms for bids to move mussels from one river to another and also to infect salmon with a parasite, which encourages the species without harming the fish.
Iain Sime from SNH said pearl mussels are a vulnerable species with an important place in Scotland’s heritage.
Mr Sime said: “The search for an elusive pearl often results in the killing of many thousands of mussels.
“But the tragedy is that this illegal activity and these recent kills threaten to cause pearl mussels to become extinct from entire rivers, further threatening the survival of the species.
“Pearl fishing continues, despite it being a criminal offence to disturb, take, injure or kill pearl mussels.
“The persecution of the freshwater pearl mussel has caused many populations, which have an important place in our cultural history, to become extinct.”
Worldwide there are only 150 rivers where there are known populations of breeding freshwater pearl mussels.
As many as half of those rivers are in Scotland and the mussels play an important role in river ecology, filtering up to 50 litres of water a day.
Although they grow very slowly they can live up to a hundred years old meaning any aggressive hunting can quickly decimate stocks.
It is thought the repopulation programme will take up to two years to complete. A decision on the contract is expected in the next few months.