Change in the water

Written by Neil Evans on 23 July 2014 in Feature

A network of Scottish Marine Protected Areas will be one of the major achievements since devolution - the work behind it is just as groundbreaking

Later this year, a system of specially protected zones aimed at allowing marine life to thrive will finally be designated by Scottish ministers.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) will be a result of years of campaigning for greater protection of sea life in Scottish waters, but it will also be the culmination of a major piece of scientific research aiming to build an “ecologically coherent network”.

In September 2010, the Scottish Government set out its intention to use the powers from the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 to give greater protection to its surrounding waters.

Two years later, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee delivered a 258-page document recommending 33 natural MPAs and four further ‘search locations’ where further evidence was needed, building on the existing protections already in place from Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas, Sites of Scientific Interest and existing fisheries restrictions.

The work has not stopped there. Since the document was published, SNH, JNCC and Marine Scotland have worked closely together, putting on workshops and ensuring that people in the consultation that followed, that information from it was disseminated as widely as possible and people were able to get sufficient information on the process and plans.
Scottish ministers will be making a final decision this year, taking into account the 14,703 responses to the consultation.

Katie Gillham, project manager at SNH, who has worked on the Scottish MPA Project since its inception, said it had been different from anything SNH had done before, “a selection process unlike any other,” she added.

While SNH often provides advice for ministers on areas needing protection, this process included proposals submitted by third parties such as the Marine Conservation Society and RSPB as well as community groups, and also saw the organisation working alongside JNCC – whose area of coverage extends to 200 nautical miles off the coast of Scotland, as opposed to the 12 nautical miles covered by SNH.

Workshops were set up while the research was under way, aimed largely at representatives of different sectors, such as fishing or renewables, but also academics, in order to get the broadest possible range of data to include in the project.

One of the main differences in the working processes for SNH has been the many consultation sessions that have been held since the 2012 report, known as ‘the Green Book’ was released.
Gillham said previous consultations had involved more traditional presentations to large groups in community halls, with the opportunity for Q&A sessions afterwards, but they recognised that a more engaging type of event was needed.

“It kind of set up a ‘them and us’ feeling and those events weren’t that constructive,” she said. “We purposefully changed to having a drop-in session where we could just be there throughout the day and the early evening.

“I think we found with the previous big community hall events that a lot of people didn’t want to ask their questions in front of everybody else. The drop-in works better.”

Events were run by all three organisations involved for a range of interested groups and representatives from the different partners often attended each other’s meetings.

Gillham also said large poster boards at the events with more specific details about individual areas, or photographs to build a better image of what the MPAs entailed, helped to engage people more in the process – some would turn up with pictures taken on smartphones from a fishing boat or walking along the beach wanting to find out more information from the experts. Gillham said this “helped to tap into people’s enthusiasm.” 

The size of the project has meant many new ways of approaching their research has been included.

She added: “Some of it was deliberate; some of it developed that way as it worked through the project. As we went through each stage and presented our work over the last few months to each workshop, effectively, all of the stakeholders were peer reviewing our work – saying they understood this bit, or this bit of evidence looked weak and they didn’t buy that. It really helped us to understand where the things were in our process and where they weren’t working so well.

“It is quite a resource intensive process to run, but I don’t think we could have run a process that was as big as this, trying to put forward a whole network of MPAs in one go, in any other way.”  

 

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