Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Endangered pearl mussels killed

Some of the opened mussels (Pic: Dr Peter Cosgrove)
Illegal fishers destroyed 130 freshwater pearl mussels

Illegal pearl fishers have struck in Angus, destroying large numbers of one of Scotland's most endangered species.

Wildlife experts have discovered 130 opened freshwater pearl mussels at the River South Esk, downstream of Brechin.

The area has one of the world's largest populations of the mussels - but the culprits have killed about a third of those in that part of the river.

One expert said it was probably the largest kill he had seen since a ban was introduced 10 years ago.

The indications are that mussels were taken from the bed of the river in the summer and opened to see if there was a pearl inside.

The River South Esk has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation for its populations of freshwater pearl mussels. The fine for killing just one mussel can be as high as 10,000.

Largest kill

The crime was discovered during a survey at the river.

Survey leader Dr Peter Cosgrove said: ''We worked hard to find these mussel beds - and dead shells - suggesting a similar effort must have been needed by the pearl fishers. This was not an opportunistic half an hour in the river and away effort.

''The pearl fishers would have to have systematically been in large areas of the river for many hours/days to find the mussels, plus the time taken to kill them and look for pearls.

"In all my many years of experience of doing this type of survey, I think the scale of this illegal fishing incident on the South Esk might be the largest pearl fishing kill I've seen since the 1998 ban.''

A damaged shell (Pic: Dr Peter Cosgrove)
The shells were forced open to see if they contained pearls

Alan Stewart, Tayside Police's wildlife and environmental crime officer, added: ''Investigating crime against the extremely endangered freshwater pearl mussel is one of the wildlife crime policing priorities set out by government and police through the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (PAW).

''The penalties reflect the seriousness, in that for each mussel killed the potential fine is 10,000.''

In 2005, a study found that the condition of pearl mussels in the South Esk was classed as "unfavourable" due to the low densities, illegal persecution and water quality.

Rhona McInroy, from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), explained that the most recent kills were a major setback.

"Much time and money has recently been put towards improving conditions for salmon and freshwater pearl mussel further up the river by the Fishery Board, SNH and the European Union," she said. "This illegal fishing frustrates this recovery.

Freshwater pearl mussels act as biofilters, filtering out particles and maintaining water quality.

Researchers have calculated that, on average, two populations are lost every year and this has been happening for the last 30 years.

Police have appealed for anyone, particularly anglers, who have been on the River South Esk and saw anything suspicious to come forward.

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