Scottish Government urged to “reflect and rethink” Highly Protected Marine Areas

    Criticism mounts over the Scottish Government's plans to restrict aquaculture and fishing around Scotland's coasts with new HPMA designations.

    Scotland’s fishing, seafood and aquaculture industries, as well as some local authorities, have criticised Scottish Government plans for new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) around Scotland’s coasts.

    The Scottish Government plans to designate at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs. Work has begun this year to find the most appropriate locations for the protected sites, before they are officially approved in 2026. The proposals were made available for consultation this year, closing for respones on 17 April. The new designations would mean a ban on marine activity, including aquaculture and fishing, in protected sites.

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    “These sites will provide high levels of protection by placing strict limits on some human activities, such as fishing and aquaculture, while allowing non-damaging recreational activities to take place at carefully managed levels,” the Scottish Government notes on its website.

    “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,” it continues.

    Furthermore, “It is intended that aquaculture of any form, including finfish, shellfish and seaweed cultivation, will not be allowed within HPMAs.” This means that no new aquaculture licenses would be issued within HPMAs, and existing aquaculture operations would need to relocate if sites fall within the protected zone.

    Currently, 37% of Scotland’s waters are designated as Marine Protected Areas, where fishing and aquaculture are permitted subject to regulations. The new HPMAs will extend these protections, overlapping with MPAs in some areas.

    Fears of “catastrophic impact” of HPMAs on Scotland’s fishing and seafood industries

    The proposals have proved highly controversial, as many within Scotland’s maritime industries and coastal communities fear negative consequences for jobs and livelihoods in fishing, seafood processing and aquaculture.

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    According to the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF), the proposed HPMAs will have a “catastrophic impact” on the Scottish fishing industry.

    SFF chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: “In the last few weeks there have been more and more voices from around Scotland’s coastline saying that the Scottish Government’s policy on HPMAs is fundamentally flawed.”

    “Community groups, local authorities and MSPs from across the political spectrum have expressed their fears that designating at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs will have far-reaching consequences for Scotland’s coastal and island communities and economies,” she continued.

    Lobster pots stacked on the harbour at Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

    “As the plans are politically driven rather than based on robust policy analysis, there are no data underpinning the process, no time to establish baselines once the sites are identified and no models or indicators to measure their effect. In essence, there will be no way of assessing if the HPMAs are achieving the government’s very vague and unfocused aims.”

    “We repeat our call to the Scottish Government to pause, reflect and rethink these proposals, which many people around Scotland’s coastline don’t support,” Macdonald concluded.

    Local authorities, including the Shetland Islands Council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) have also voiced strong opposition to the plans, citing negative consequences for local fishing, aquaculture and seafood processing industries.

    Aquaculture trade body says jobs should be prioritised over politics

    Scotland’s aquaculture industry advocates have expressed similar concerns. Trade body Salmon Scotland warns HPMAs could “put jobs in fragile coastal communities at risk and undermine the government’s vision of a ‘blue economy’”. One in three salmon farms already operate in existing marine protected areas (MPAs), the organization noted in its statement.

    “Salmon farms occupy a tiny proportion of Scotland’s waters, yet ours is one of the most important sectors of the marine economy and one of the biggest employers in the Highlands and islands,” said Salmon Scotland Chief Executive Tavish Scott.

    Floating cages in a sea fish farming in Scotland. Photo: Adobe Stock.
    Floating cages in a sea fish farming in Scotland. Photo: Adobe Stock.

    Salmon Scotland has expressed opposition to Highly Protected Marine Areas at an earlier stage in the consultation, sentiments which it renewed in a statement released this week.

    “We have grave concerns that HPMAs as currently proposed will result in significant job losses in some of our most fragile coastal communities, and damage the Scottish Government’s own blue economy approach that supports sustainable economic growth.”

    “HMPAs have been developed in isolation and jar with existing government policies such as the national marine plan, the aquaculture vision, trade and economic policy, economic policy and local authority development plans for the marine area.”

    “We urge joined-up policy making from the Scottish Government. Government should prioritise evidence-based policies that protect both the environment and the livelihoods of hardworking Scots.”

    The HPMA controversy continues

    HPMA designations have also caused controversy in other parts of the UK.

    The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has announced the creation of three new Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in English waters by 6 July of this year. The protections are intended to enable recovery of wild habitats and species by removing all harmful activities including fishing, construction and dredging. However, of the eleven sites originally proposed, only three made it to the final list due to community and industry objections to the proposals.

    The Scottish Government, which has separate jurisdiction over its waters, says the implementation of HPMAs would make the country “world leaders in marine protection” and will “lead the way in creating a coherent network of these protected areas for our most valuable ecosystems that will extend from our coasts to our deep seas”.

    Potential sites will be selected using the best available evidence, the Government says. “We will work closely with stakeholders throughout the selection process to so we can assess the socio-economic impacts of any proposed sites. Final site proposals will be consulted on before being designated by Scottish Ministers.”

    HPMA proposals will be developed “in close collaboration” with island and coastal communities

    Having gathered responses through the consultation, the Government says it “will now take time to carefully analyse responses before setting out our next steps.”

    The Minister overseeing the consultation is Mairi McAllan, Minister for Environment and Land Reform. Responding to the criticisms, McAllan said she intended to visit the coastal and island communities affected by the proposals to hear their concerns at first hand.

    “Proposals for Highly Protected Marine Areas, akin to those under development across the EU, are intended to offer a greater level of protection to our most precious marine life, allowing key species and habitats to recover, helping to tackle climate change, benefitting nature and supporting our blue economy,” McAllan said in a statement.

    “I recognise there is considerable strength of feeling on this issue – from those who support it and those who have concerns. 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.”

    “I want to give my assurance that I am listening and absolutely recognise the value that Scotland’s fishing and aquaculture sectors play in contributing to our economic prosperity. I will visit coastal and island communities in the coming months to hear directly from those affected,” McAllan said.

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