At least 10% of the waters around Scotland could be designated as Highly Protected Marine Areas – closed to fishing, aquaculture or offshore energy infrastructure – under proposals from the Scottish government.
The consultation on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) sets out a policy framework, selection criteria for potential HPMAs and a process for balancing environmental considerations against economic needs and the interests of island and coastal communities.
The consultation defines HPMAs as “…designated areas of the sea that are strictly protected from damaging levels of human activities, allowing marine ecosystems to recover and thrive. These areas safeguard all of their marine life for the benefit of the planet and current and future generations; providing opportunities for carefully managed enjoyment and appreciation.”
Within designated HPMAs, all forms of fishing – whether commercial or recreational – would not be allowed, and these zones would also be off limits to aquaculture and any new infrastructure such as offshore wind turbines, ports and harbours.
Consultation on the proposals, which can be viewed online will take place up to 20 March 2023. The consultation does not set out where any HPMAs are likely to be sited.
The restrictions in HPMAs go further than the existing framework of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which already cover just over one-third of the seas around Scotland.
For Scottish inshore waters (up to 12 nautical miles from the coast), there is full legislative competence within Scotland to introduce the necessary powers to designate HPMAs through primary legislation. For the Scottish offshore region (beyond 12 nautical miles out to the outer limits of the UK continental shelf), powers over the marine environment are currently reserved to the UK government (with some exceptions).
The Scottish government has said, however, that it would ask for powers to designate HPMA equivalents in offshore waters around Scotland.
Introducing the consultation, Scotland’s Environment Minister Mairi McAllan said: “Scotland has some of the most beautiful and diverse marine ecosystems on the planet and we are committed to safeguarding them.
“As we develop this landmark HPMA network consultation I would urge everyone with an interest in our precious marine environment, blue economy and coastal communities, to take part.”
She also announced her intention to permanently designate the Red Rocks and Longay area – in the Inner Sound of Skye – as an MPA, to safeguard the future of the critically endangered flapper skate (Dipturus intermedius).
The pledge to introduce HPMAs was part of the Bute House agreement between the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party, which brought to Greens into coalition with the SNP.
The Scottish Green spokesperson for coastal communities, Ariane Burgess, said: “These bold plans represent a seismic shift for Scotland’s marine biodiversity. They will see key parts of our seas and coasts dedicated to the protection and restoration of nature, protecting them from exploitation and destruction.
“Highly Protected Marine Areas will be special places, protected for the good of current and future generations for their local, national and global importance. They will also play a critical role underpinning the restoration of healthy fish populations and supporting the development of a sustainable fisheries sector.”
The Chief Executive of government agency NatureScot, Francesca Osowska, said: “We are a nation of coasts and seas, and it is vital that we safeguard these special places. The new highly protected marine areas, which will complement and strengthen the existing Marine Protected Areas network, will help to tackle both the climate change and nature emergencies and meet our goal to achieve net zero in Scotland by 2045.”
She added: “Healthy seas also sustain the livelihoods of thousands of people in Scotland – without this resource, our food, energy and tourism industries would suffer.
“We know these proposals will be of interest to many people throughout Scotland and we look forward to hearing a wide range of views on how we can best safeguard our marine life and habitats and the complex marine ecosystems they are part of, while at the same time securing a sustainable future for all those who use our seas.”
The announcement was not welcomed, however, by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, whose Chief Executive, Elspeth Macdonald, said: “HPMAs are an exercise in government greenwashing. There is no justifiable scientific rationale for their introduction or any evidence whatsoever that they will achieve their very vague aims.
“They will inevitably have a significant impact in further squeezing fishing vessels out of large areas of sea – 37% of Scottish waters are already protected under the existing MPA network.
“MPAs aim to strike a balance between conservation and sustainable harvesting, whereas HPMAs will exclude fishing altogether. HPMAs will also exclude most other types of activity, resulting in even greater pressure for marine space in other areas.”
She said the proposals were being brought in too fast for meaningful consultation, and added: “The speed at which the Scottish Government intends to bring in these restrictions – first signalled out of the blue, without any consultation, in the Bute House Agreement – is totally unsuitable relative to the scale of the potential impact on fishing.
“The fishing industry has no objection to meaningful conservation and indeed has been an active and supportive partner in developing the MPA network, but it is vitally important that we understand what we are conserving and why, and how we assess the contribution of restrictions to the objectives in question.
“The HPMA process is prioritising political objectives over good policy-making and decision-taking.”