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'Operation Caesar' Launched To Save Pearl Mussels

29th May 2010

'Operation Caesar' launched as pearl mussel sites see 'appalling' damage

Significant and lasting criminal damage has been found at 75% of internationally important freshwater pearl mussel sites surveyed, Scottish Natural Heritage confirmed today.

Criminal acts ranged from illegal pearl fishing and unauthorised river works which saw the destruction of whole pearl mussel populations.

And in a bid to crack down after the unexpectedly severe damage, police and SNH are today launching 'Operation Caesar' which seeks the public's help in identifying and reporting any suspicious activity to the police.

The mussels are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and crimes against them carry the possibility of prison sentences. Promotion of wildlife conservation law and its enforcement is supported by the Scottish Government through the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime - PAW Scotland. This partnership supports the tireless efforts of police wildlife crime officers in policing a complex area of crime - efforts that will ensure rare species are not further damaged in Scotland.

The wildlife crime findings came after the latest round of SNH's routine monitoring during 2008/2009. It covered a total of nine Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), specially designated to conserve these amazing and extremely vulnerable animals.

Of the nine sites surveyed, damage was found at seven of the SACs and SSSIs. Three showed such significant damage that recovery will be extremely challenging.

In one river system in the west Highlands, one of the largest pearl mussel beds of at least 600 animals was found to have disappeared since the previous monitoring visit five years earlier, with no explanation other than destructive pearl fishing.

The results have caused dismay among scientists, who insisted that the freshwater pearl mussel, as an iconic species, needs to be understood and appreciated more in order for the true effects of these criminal acts to be understood.

Scotland's rivers contain as many as half of the world's most important pearl mussel populations. This places a great responsibility on the authorities to ensure the pearl mussel continues to survive. Freshwater pearl mussels were once a common sight from Plymouth to Peterhead and beyond.

Scotland has a total of 21 designated sites for pearl mussels with Scottish rivers holding around half of the world's population of the species.

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: "It is clear that the pearl mussel continues to suffer from indiscriminate and illegal ransacking by determined criminals. It is a UK wildlife crime priority and SNH has been tasked with co-ordinating action to try and halt this decline. This work will continue despite these setbacks.

"The Scottish Government is committed to protecting all our native species and to cracking down on the criminals with the help of SNH, the police and PAW Scotland."

Iain Sime of SNH said: "An unexpected result of this monitoring has been the number of sites damaged by criminal activity, and the impacts from illegal pearl fishing. Our findings have been shocking, appalling even, and it is clear that we must undertake urgent work to save this species from almost certain extinction in some areas.

"Unauthorised engineering in one river seems to have destroyed the most significant pearl mussel bed of around 900 animals in the lower reaches of the river.

"Another site has seen the killing, in less than a day, of 50% of the mussels in the burn - making any recovery from the remaining animals extremely difficult. Operation Caesar has been launched to enlist the help of people in trying to stop these crimes."

Northern Constabulary chief inspector Matthew Reiss, north division area commander, said: "We in Northern Constabulary remain committed and vigilant to the effects of criminality on the pearl mussels and we wholeheartedly support any prevention measures as outlined in this new operation. We would appeal to the angling and walking communities, and those who also enjoy the countryside, to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity at or near water especially as the warmer summer weather approaches.

"This can extend to suspicious activity in and around rivers - from people searching in rivers and shells on banks to vehicles parked early in the day. Wildlife crime remains a priority for all Scottish police forces and our officers will be highlighting the freshwater pearl mussels' importance as they engage with members of their communities."

'Operation Caeser' is co called because the freshwater pearl mussels have an ancient cultural history in Scotland. It is said that Caesar invaded Britain to get his hands on the pearls sometimes yielded by the mussels, which also adorn the Scottish crown jewels.

The Species Action Framework was launched in 2007 and sets out a strategic approach to species management in Scotland. Further information at