Scotland highly protected marine areas: What are they and why are plans being criticised?

The newly proposed non-fishing zones have prompted serious backlash from rural communities and have been at the heart of multiple political debates in the last few months.

What are Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs)?

Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) are areas of the sea (including the shoreline) where most human activity, including all forms of fishing, is banned “to encourage the full recovery of marine ecosystems.”

(See below for more detail on what is banned in HPMAs).

HPMAs are set to protect another 10% of Scotland's waters, on top of the current MPAs which protect more than a third (37%) of the country's coastline (Getty Images/iStockphoto)HPMAs are set to protect another 10% of Scotland's waters, on top of the current MPAs which protect more than a third (37%) of the country's coastline (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
HPMAs are set to protect another 10% of Scotland's waters, on top of the current MPAs which protect more than a third (37%) of the country's coastline (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Scottish Government 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.

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"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.”

How do they differ from current Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)?

HPMAs have more strict bans on human activity compared to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). There are currently 244 MPA sites in Scotland, with 230 for conservation purposes, which equates to more than a third (37%) of the country’s seas.

Where are the HPMAs in Scotland?

As part of the Bute House Agreement - which brought the Scottish Greens into government in a historic power-sharing deal with the SNP - Holyrood ministers committed to designate at least 10% of Scotland's seas as HPMAs by 2026.

The Scottish Government, however, is still yet to confirm where these sites will be.

A consultation calling for views on the new no-fishing zones closed last month.

A further consultation on where the proposed sites will be is likely to take place in 2025, in order to instate them by 2026, the Scottish Government has said.

There is a strong likelihood the HPMAs will be extensions of existing designated MPAs.

The Scottish Government’s consultation said: “HPMAs will be selected in a way that complements the existing MPA network and is mindful of decisions that have already been made and/or are underway regarding wider marine management in Scottish waters.

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“It may be that HPMAs overlap either fully or partially with some existing MPAs in order to maximise the conservation benefits that could be gained with stricter management approaches in a particular geographic location”.

What is banned in HPMAs?

Some of the headline parts of the HPMAs include:

Fishing will be banned. The proposals read: “It is intended that commercial fishing of any kind and by any type of vessel will not be allowed within HPMAs. This includes fishing with static gear, mobile gear and hand collection by divers.”

To travel through HPMAs, fishing vessels will be required to observe “minimum speed requirements to help ensure that fishing is not occurring”; to “lash and stow all fishing gear” and follow “enhanced reporting requirements for vessel monitoring systems”.

Fish farming would also be banned, with the proposals saying: “It is intended that aquaculture of any form, including finfish, shellfish and seaweed cultivation, will not be allowed within HPMAs”.

The plans also suggest a total ban on shellfish cultivation within HPMAs with the paper saying that 70 per cent of this sector is accounted for by mussel cultivation, adding: “Although, shellfish farms are located throughout the west coast, Western Isles, and Orkney the majority are found in Shetland, which accounts for about 70% of all shellfish produced by farms.

“The shellfish industry, with the exception of some of the large-scale Shetland farms, is essentially still a cottage industry with small operators and crofters adding it to their other activities. During 2021 the shellfish industry employed a total of 303 workers (141 full-time and 162 part-time and casual) largely in rural and island communities .

“Although shellfish aquaculture is recognised as one of the most environmentally benign methods of food production, the need for ongoing human activities (both deposition and extraction) mean that this would not be compatible with the aims of HPMAs.”

Seaweed harvesting would also be taboo.

Managed levels of swimming, snorkelling and windsurfing, however, would be allowed.

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The only industry which seems to be exempted from the prospect of HPMAs putting it out of business is renewable energy.

While no new marine renewable energy schemes would be allowed, and the laying of subsea cables would be restricted, areas already designated for major windfarm projects are excluded from consideration for designation as HPMAs.

According to the consultation paper: “Given the need for increased offshore renewable energy capacity, the introduction of HPMAs will need to complement these targets and should not hinder their achievement.

“Any areas with renewable developments that already exist, are consented, or have draft or adopted plans will be scoped out of the HPMA selection process. This will include, for example, all ScotWind projects (and their associated infrastructure) awarded in January 2021, for which option agreements are in place”.

There are also some concessions to “marine tourism” and a “permitting system” is proposed to “limit the number of recreational vessels which can be in a HPMA at particular times”.

What are the critics saying?

The HPMA proposals have caused serious backlash from island communities, fishing organisations and some MSPs representing Highland and Islands constituencies.

The Scottish Fishermen's Federation (SFF), which represents the country's fishermen's associations, has warned HPMAs could have a "catastrophic impact" on the industry.

Chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said the plans "are politically driven rather than based on robust policy analysis" and that the proposals are “fundamentally flawed” and “clearly lack scientific evidence” to back them up.

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She said: "The impact on other marine users is potentially immense, and government hasn't yet been able to set out how it will assess the displacement of marine activities including fishing into other areas, or the environmental or socio-economic impacts."

The organisation has urged Holyrood ministers to follow England's lead, which has three HPMA sites due to be created this year, by launching a pilot scheme in some marine areas so the the impact of HPMAs can be analysed.

It pointed out the three HPMAs south of the border cover just 0.53% of English waters.

Ms Macleod has also said along with HPMAs, proposals for “huge offshore windfarms” around Scotland mean the industry “feels under threat like never before”.

The Scottish Creel Fishermen's Federation has criticised “a lack of detail about the ecological impact of the proposals.”

Salmon Scotland, which represents salmon farms, warned HPMAs could leads to "significant job losses in some of our most fragile coastal communities".

Western Isles local authority Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has voiced opposition, as has Highland Council.

And Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the national public body with responsibility for Gaelic, has raised serious concerns about the impact on Gaelic-speaking areas.

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Barra creel fisherman Angus MacPhail said there is “palpable anger” among some of Scotland’s fishing communities.

The 43-year-old co-wrote a protest song with fellow fisherman and singer Donald MacNeil, 64, called “The Clearances Again” – comparing the HPMA policy to the Highland Clearances - the forced eviction of inhabitants of the Highlands and western islands of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some conservation groups have also taken aim at the proposals saying the don’t go far enough.

Our Seas - a coalition including the National Trust for Scotland, angling bodies, ecotourism firms, scallop divers, coastal communities and salmon conservation boards - has called for further protection, warning fishing stock has plummeted since a three-mile limit on trawling around the coastline was lifted in 1984.

Political conflict

Ministers in favour of the no-fishing zones said they will “provide the best possible chance of protecting and restoring marine ecosystems so they can continue to support marine industries and the communities that depend upon them”.

The Scottish Greens have said opponents to the proposals would be "handing a death sentence to future generations” with the party’s climate spokesperson Mark Ruskell insisting the "tried and tested" plans must go ahead.

"Nobody can deny that we need to protect our seas, that we need to create a circular economy, transform our energy supplies and completely reimagine our transport solutions,” he said. “Yet Labour and the Tories are conspiring against these most vital of actions.

"Those who are actively working against those aims are in effect handing a death sentence to future generations with their stubborn political ambition."

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First Minister Humza Yousaf, however, has said the Scottish Government will not impose HPMAs on communities that are “vehemently opposed” to them.

But many MSPs have raised concerns about exactly how the Government is defining communities who are “vehemently opposed.”

There is also concern about what constitutes a “community”, in terms of who will be consulted when areas are chosen by ministers.

Kate Forbes, the defeated SNP leadership contender, has been heavily critical of HPMAs.

The MSP for Skye, Lochaber & Badenoch lambasted her ministerial colleagues for “poor decision-making”, policy-making in “silos” without regard for wider impacts, and working against efforts to stem rural depopulation.

She said the “rarest species in our coastal areas and our islands will soon become people if these proposals go ahead as planned” and called on the government to “either drop the proposals or to find a clear consensus … on balancing protections in the marine environment and safeguard tens of thousands of jobs”.

Alasdair Allan, the nationalist MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, said he had “never known my constituency to be apparently so unanimously opposed to any policy as this one".

Fergus Ewing, the MSP for Inverness and Nairn, is a fierce critic of the policy who has labelled the proposals an "execution notice” and warned he was worried fishers were “losing confidence in the party I’ve served for nearly 50 years”.

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In a meeting with Net Zero and Just Transition Secretary Mairi McAllan earlier this month, Mr Ewing said the best use of the consultation was to either put it in the bin or use it as a firelighter before ripping up the document on the chamber floor, stating “that is what the people of Scotland who have great affection for our fishermen want to happen and what should happen and what I believe will happen at some stage or another”.

Labour and Lib Dem amendments urging ministers to work with fishing communities and island communities passed unanimously.

Ms McAllan has said she recognises “the considerable strength of feeling” on the issue, that “it has always been our intention to develop these ambitious proposals in close collaboration with those impacted by them – in particular, people living and working in our island and coastal communities.”

She is due to visit island communities and said there will be further opportunities for individuals, communities and businesses to have their say.

Cabinet secretary for Rural Affairs Mairi Gougeon stressed to the industry that “there must always be space for fishing” during plans for HPMAs, adding that the sector “must and will survive and thrive.”

But the minister was reportedly heckled by fishermen as she addressed them at the Scottish Skipper Expo conference in Aberdeen in May.

Ms Gougeon pointed to “significant trade barriers” caused by the UK Government and Brexit, as well as “a hostile UK immigration policy that has exacerbated labour shortages and rural depopulation”.

She claimed that “independence, and reversing the harms of Brexit, continues to offer the best future for Scottish fishing and wider seafood sector”.

What’s next?

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Answers to the Scottish Government consultation, which closed in April, will be analysed and considered along with other available evidence to assist ministers.

A formal public consultation on site proposals will likely take place in 2025.

HPMAs elsewhere in the UK?

Under the UK Government, there are already three proposed HPMA sites: Allonby Bay (in the Irish Sea), North East of Farnes Deep (in the Northern North Sea) and Dolphin Head (in the Eastern Channel off southern England) which are due to be created by July this year.

There were initially another two proposed, Lindisfarne off Northumberland and Inner Silver Pit South (south of the Humber), but they were dropped over socioeconomic impacts, including the cost to fishers.

Defra received 915 responses to the consultation. Overall, 56 per cent supported the designation of pilot HPMAs in English waters and 36 per cent were opposed.

The majority of respondents (77 per cent) were not members of an any environmental organisation (for example, charities, non-governmental organisations or community action groups), while 13 per cent were members of an environmental organisation not specific to marine issues and five per cent were members of marine-focused organisations.



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