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Highly Protected Marine Areas: The men in grey suits need to listen to fragile island communities

Lamlash Bay in Arran | Credit: Alamy

Highly Protected Marine Areas: The men in grey suits need to listen to fragile island communities

A wrecking ball through our existence
Tradition and culture condemned
At the hands of the arrogant stranger
The Clearances over again

(lyrics from The Clearances Again performed by Donald Francis MacNeil with Skipinnish)

As Brian Wilson pointed out in the The Herald recently, if there is one beneficial outcome of the Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) row, it is the return of the protest song which (he argued) has been for too long in abeyance.

The fury that has erupted over proposals to designate 10 per cent of Scotland’s inshore waters as HPMAs where virtually no human activity of any sort will be permitted has been a surprise and shock to the governing elite in Holyrood.

Designating zones where fishing is prohibited (often called “no-take zones”) is a proven method of restoring fisheries and protecting biodiversity. One doesn’t have to look far to see the benefits. Lamlash Bay off Arran is one such location, where 13 years of campaigning by locals resulted in the establishment of Scotland’s first no-take zone. Other examples in the UK include Lundy and Flamborough Head.

However, since the abandonment of the three-mile limit in 1984 and the associated removal of many protections (including the ban on bottom trawling), many inshore fish stocks have declined to the point of commercial extinction.

The outcry over HPMAs is not fundamentally about the need to protect, recover and sustain marine fisheries. It is not even about the role of HPMAs specifically. At root it is about the lack of agency among those whose livelihoods are most at stake and the communities that rely on inshore fisheries.

Scotland’s seas and their associated fisheries are a public resource to be managed for public benefit – a common pool resource, in the jargon of resource management. But since the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984, all power to regulate inshore waters has been conferred on ministers in St Andrew’s House.

Successive administrations have tended to defer to powerful, large-scale commercial fishing interests (dominated by a handful of families who own almost half of Scotland’s total fishing quota) and have ignored the need for stronger, more regional and local governance frameworks.

It is this fundamental disconnect and sense of disempowerment that the HPMA proposals have given voice to as much as any immediate perceived impact on fisheries. The furore takes place against the backdrop of decades of disempowering local government. It is no surprise that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has talked about “a total disconnect between remote urban policy-makers in Edinburgh and real people leading real lives in communities across the Outer Hebrides”.

There is also a key difference between setting out proposed policies and how they are then implemented. The consultation document published in December 2022 makes clear that as a consequence of the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Green Party, the Scottish Government is committed to introduce HPMAs covering at least 10 per cent of inshore and offshore waters by 2026.

The ministerial foreword to the document, however, contains the claim by the then Minister for Environment and Land Reform, Màiri McAllan, that, “I am determined that those who may be affected by these proposals are involved from the outset”. Which rather begs the question – the outset of what?

With HPMAs being a red line for the Scottish Greens, according to leaked comments by the first minister at a meeting of all SNP MSPs and MPs in mid-April, the stage is set, unfortunately, for a bitter clash between interests who could, had matters been handled better, be working  towards a consensus on what inshore fisheries governance should look like and the role that HPMAs could play.

Unfortunately, fisheries governance is still centralised in Edinburgh. England has successful Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Associations with regulatory powers. Scotland’s Regional Inshore Fisheries Groups, by contrast, are weak and (with the exception of the Shetland Shellfish Management Organisation) have no statutory powers.

The tragedy of the past few months is that the scope for considering how the establishment of designated zones like Lamlash Bay might help in the recovery of marine life has been set back considerably by the dogmatic, careless and uncompromising manner in which HPMAs have been promoted.

The sensible thing to do is to acknowledge that inshore fisheries governance is a mess, it is ad hoc, is over-centralised, has failed to protect fish stocks and has privileged a wealthy elite in the Scottish fishing industry over the interests of fragile coastal communities, particularly along the west coast and islands.

Since our seas and the resources they contain are a public resource, the core question is who should govern them. In an unscripted response to Rachael Hamilton MSP, the first minister stated in parliament, that “we will not impose these policies [HPMAs] on communities that do not want them”.

And so we moved from a governmental red line to a community veto in a matter of days.
Whether such a veto will ever be created or how it will work is perhaps less important than the obvious implication of the first minister’s acknowledgment of local concerns, which is that local fisheries management should be devolved to the local level. If HPMAs are such a great idea, they will be implemented, but within a framework of local governance and only after detailed local consideration.

Shetland Islands Council has exercised significant powers over the marine environment since the ground-breaking Zetland County Council Act of 1974. There is no reason why other local authorities cannot do likewise if given the powers to do so.

Time will tell whether the first minister’s mid-April intervention is the kiss of death for HPMAs or the welcome opening of a new era of modern local governance of Scotland’s inshore fisheries which, in the words sung by Donald Francis MacNeil,

We’ll join with the kin of our coastline
From Ness to the Holy Isle.
Faceless grey suits from the cities,
They will not play games with our lives.


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