Reintroducing millions of formerly extinct oysters to parts of the Scottish Highlands will turn the region into a bastion of biodiversity, researchers say.
Native European oysters have all but disappeared in the UK, with numbers declining by 95% since the mid-19th century, likely due to overfishing.
It has also led to the near disappearance of oyster reefs off the UK coastline.
But the Dornoch Environmental Improvement Project, Launched in 2014of which four million will be reintroduced by the end of the century to the Dornoch Bay reserve on the shores of the Glenmorangie distillery.
It’s one of a growing number of oyster restoration projects in Europe that scientists hope will boost marine biodiversity and improve water quality.
To understand the potential impact of the project, researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh studied the biodiversity of Scotland’s last remaining native oyster fishery at Loch Lane.
It has been in operation since 1701 and uses what is known as a rotational harvesting system – a different area is fished each year and then refilled for six years before being fished again.
Biodiversity ‘will double in ten years’
Lead author Naomi Kennon said her university’s work suggested that biodiversity under oyster restoration projects “could double within a decade”.
“This means that the number of species will increase in a balanced way,” she added.
Ms Kennon’s colleagues examined the impact of oyster reef development and any biodiversity increase in Lane Lake at various stages after the oyster habitat was harvested.
They looked for animal diversity, oyster shell density and oyster shell percentage.
Modeling is then used to predict changes in diversity over time.
Callum Duncan, Marine Conservation Society head of conservation Scotland, said: “The Loch Ryan study shows that increasing the complexity of the seafloor could allow many species to find refuge in this living coral reef.”
The Marine Conservation Society is working with Heriot-Watt and whiskey maker Glenmorangie, which provided funding, on the project.
It is expected that 200,000 oysters will be recovered by the end of next year.