Why are highly protected marine areas so controversial in Scotland? 1

Why are highly protected marine areas so controversial in Scotland?

A Scottish Government plan to put new protections in place for areas of Scotland’s seas has led to controversy in fishing communities. 

Highly protected marine areas, or HPMAs, will be designated in 2026, and put strict limits on what can and cannot be done to areas of seas considered to need the highest protection. 

Ferret Fact Service looked into the new law and why there is so much disagreement. 

Ferret Fact Service | Scotland's impartial fact check project

What are HPMAs? 

Highly protected marine areas are parts of Scotland’s seas that will be given special status and protection to allow their marine ecosystems to recover and thrive. The Scottish Government will choose the HPMAs in 2026, and expects them to cover about ten per cent of Scottish waters. 

The policy was adopted as part of the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and Scottish Greens.

The Scottish Government wants to put HPMAs in place to protect and restore marine ecosystems, after an assessment of Scotland’s seas in 2020 showed a number of key species were in decline. 

The UK Government is also putting in place HPMAs, with three pilot sites being designated this year. 

What protections are in place at the moment? 

Areas of Scotland’s seas are already covered by marine protected areas (MPAs). The Scottish Government states the purpose of these areas is for “nature conservation, protection of biodiversity, demonstrating sustainable management, and protecting our heritage”. They have been described as national parks for the sea

MPAs cover 37 per cent of seas around Scotland across 244 sites.

While HPMAs will be part of the MPA network, and may overlap with certain existing protected areas, they will be much more strictly regulated than existing MPAs.

What restrictions will be in place in HPMAs?

The Scottish Government says that commercial fishing of any kind will not be allowed in the HPMA areas. Recreational fishing will also be banned, including when the fish are caught and released.

Aquaculture, which includes fish farming, shellfish and seaweed cultivation, will also be banned in these zones. This means new applications for aquaculture will be rejected and existing sites in HPMAs would have to relocate. 

Other activities such as boating, jet skiing, windsurfing, swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving will be allowed in the areas but the levels will be “carefully managed”. The guidance says that restrictions on these activities may be brought if they are deemed to be harming the ecosystem in an HPMA. Permits may be put in place to manage certain types of activity. 

HPMAs are also intended to impact the oil and gas sector. Much of the regulation of the industry is reserved to Westminster, but the Scottish Government said oil and gas exploration, extraction, and exploratory activity “should be avoided” in the areas. However, sites where oil and gas developments already exist will not be included in the selection process for HPMAs.

No new renewable energy projects will be allowed in HPMAs either, and existing sites with renewable developments or agreed plans will also be excluded from selection. This also includes new carbon capture and storage infrastructure

Other areas which will not be eligible for HPMAs include ports and harbours, and areas where military activities regularly take place.

The new HPMA law will make it illegal to undertake any of the above banned activities in the designated areas, with enforcement and penalties similar to the existing system for marine protected areas. Illegal fishing in MPAs has resulted in fines for boat skippers. 

Why are they so controversial? 

The plan has been strongly criticised due to its potential impact on fishing communities, particularly in Scotland’s islands. 

The local authority in the Western Isles, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said it would oppose any HPMA proposals in the area. Similarly, residents in Tiree have slammed the proposal. Tiree Community Council and Tiree Community Development Trust said HPMAs posed an “existential threat” to the community’s population numbers if local fishers could not catch in the area.  

Opposition has also come from organisations including Shetland Fishing Association, Community Inshore Fisheries Alliance, and Scottish Islands Federation.

Folk band Skippinish have produced a protest song against HPMAs which likens the plan to the Highland clearances. 

There is support in coastal and island communities for marine areas to be protected and enhanced, but concern over the current policy has been focused on a perceived lack of engagement and impact on jobs and populations if fishing areas are reduced. 

Initiatives such as the Lamlash bay ‘no take zone’ have been cited as ways in which coastal communities can lead on marine protection. 

The Scottish Government has done a formal consultation on what the policy will look like, and has faced significant opposition to the proposal from the fishing industry and surrounding communities. 

Campaign groups such as Open Seas have called for marine protections to respect the “dynamics and needs within local communities” and says they could help to “recover marine life, rebuild fish stocks and the inshore boats that ensure busy, working harbours”. 

The plan became a dividing line in the SNP leadership election, with Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Fobes promising to scrap HPMAs had she been successful in the vote. 

She said there was “no evidence to demonstrate actually achieve their aims”. 

There have been calls to reconsider HPMA plans from the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and Liberal Democrats. All the major parties put increases in marine protected areas in their 2021 election manifestos. 

Do HPMAs work?

There is evidence that areas with full protection of fishing populations, also known as ‘no take zones’ help to improve fish stocks. 

The ‘no-take zone’ in Lamlash bay off Arran has also been pointed to by supporters of HPMAs as an example of the success of full protection. The small (2.67 km²) area was Scotland’s first no-take zone, established in 2008. It was a community-led campaign launched after local divers noticed the impact that intensive fishing had had on the seabed and fish populations in the bay. 

 A report found that it had been effective at increasing biodiversity, and improved the size, age and density of important species. 

There are currently more than 100 fully protected sites across the globe.

Photo credit: iStock/Abi28l

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