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What are Highly Protected Marine Areas?

What are Highly Protected Marine Areas?

The Scottish Government’s plans to introduce extra protections for marine areas have come under fire in recent weeks. Holyrood takes a closer look at the proposals...

What are Highly Protected Marine Areas?

HPMAs form part of the government’s marine protection programme. They would seek to build on existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – which cover 37 per cent of Scotland’s seas – by introducing tighter restrictions on activities which can take place in designated areas.

MPAs, introduced under the Marine Act 2010, allow for a range of activities, including fishing, aquaculture and energy infrastructure, so long as it does not harm protected features or undermine the purpose of the MPA. HPMAs would ban all extractive, destructive and depositional activities, unless an explicit exemption is made.

The Scottish Government’s policy framework for HMPAs says they “will allow for the protection and recovery of marine ecosystems, contributing to halting biodiversity loss and aiding our efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change”.

That sounds good – so what’s the problem?

As with many issues impacting rural communities, the furore is about the delicate balance between the environment and local economies.

The Scottish Fisherman’s Federation (SFF) has warned HPMAs will have a “catastrophic impact” on the sector. Chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: “The government wants to close a further 10 per cent of our waters to fishing vessels with no evidence whatsoever that doing so will achieve ministers’ vague conservation aims, nor any attempt to understand the effect of displacing the fishing fleet.” The SFF is calling on the government to instead consider pilot projects – as will happen in England – to “assess the need, practicalities and costs/benefits”.

Three island local authorities – Orkney, Shetland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – have also expressed concerns. Independent councillor Norman Macdonald, from Lewis, said HPMAs would “devastate some of our most peripheral communities and will lead to further depopulation from our islands”. He added the policy proved a “total disconnect between remote urban policy makers in Edinburgh and real people leading real lives in communities across the Outer Hebrides”.

Who is speaking out about it in Holyrood?

Conservative and Labour MSPs have warned about the negative impact HPMAs could have, but it is the split within the SNP that has made headlines. During the SNP leadership contest, candidate Kate Forbes pledged to scrap the policy and instead “commission a feasibility study into giving councils more power to ensure marine protection designations are effectively implemented and enforced”. Forbes – who represents Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch – also voted against her government in a recent debate brought by the Scottish Conservatives on the matter. She was joined by fellow former ministers Alasdair Allan and Fergus Ewing. Ewing had, the day before, dramatically ripped up the Scottish Government’s consultation document on HMPAs in the chamber, dubbing it a “notice of execution” for fishing communities.

What happens next?

The consultation, which closed last month, was only the start of the process. The Bute House Agreement between the SNP and Greens pledged to designated “at least” 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs by 2026, which it intends to do through the forthcoming Natural Environment Bill. The timetable set by government was to select the HPMA sites and further consult on the specific designations in 2025.

Days before the consultation closed, ministers announced they would not impose HPMAs on communities that don’t want them. However, given the 10 per cent target, that could result in a situation in which no community wants one and therefore the government will have to choose between scrapping its target or imposing HPMAs. A government spokesperson previously would not be drawn by journalists on this scenario, saying it was a hypothetical.

What is the UK Government’s role in all this?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has urged Scottish ministers to “re-look” at the policy. Answering a call from Lib Dem MP Jamie Stone at PMQs to “step in”, Sunak said: “I would encourage the SNP government to continue working with the Scottish fishing industry and coastal communities to understand their concerns.”

And while the Scottish Government has powers over fishing, renewable energy production and aquaculture, any move to ban oil and gas exploration and production, mining and anchoring would require agreement from the UK Government because those powers remain reserved.

Wait, isn’t England introducing HPMAs?

Yes. The UK Government intends to designate three HPMAs before 6 July this year, having run a consultation last summer. But the approach being taken is slightly different. These three sites are to be part of a “pilot phase” to “inform the future of HPMA policy”. The Scottish Government currently does not intend to run pilots.

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