The Scottish government formally announced last week that it will not be proceeding with its hugely controversial plans to designate 10% of Scottish waters as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

There was a massive backlash against the plans, and the industry and opposition politicians mounted a powerful campaign of protest. While the announcement has been welcomed, there were also multiple warnings against attempts to resurrect them in another form, and of a loss of trust in the government.

Announcing the plans were being dropped, net zero secretary Màiri McAllan said that ‘in response to the findings of the consultation, the proposal to implement [HPMAs] across 10% of Scotland’s seas by 2026 will not be progressed’.

But she said the government is ‘firmly committed to protecting our marine environment and will continue to work closely with coastal communities and industries to protect Scotland’s seas for the benefit of all’.

“As a priority, this includes completing management measures for our existing Marine Protected Area (MPA) network and protecting our priority marine features,” she said.

“I am determined to protect our oceans in a way that is fair, and to find a way forward that ensures our seas remain a source of prosperity for the nation, especially in our coastal and island communities.”

The draft HPMA policy framework and draft site selection guidelines will not be finalised and published, and the Scottish government said it ‘no longer intends to progress the establishment of new legal powers for introducing HPMAs in Scottish inshore waters through a bill in the Scottish parliament this parliamentary term’.

There was a wide welcome for the announcement from the industry, and from MPs and MSPs who had campaigned against the plans.

SFF chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: “We welcome today’s confirmation by the Scottish government that it will not seek to ban fishing in at least 10% of Scottish waters. But ministers need to maintain that position and not bring in similar measures through other routes.

“What’s important is that we have an approach to conservation that balances marine protection with sustainable use, as the government’s existing policies should be aiming to achieve.”

Simon Macdonald, the former chair of the West Coast Regional Inshore Fisheries Group and now a consultant, who campaigned strongly against the plans, told Fishing News that they had been ‘one of the big blunders of the Scottish government’.

“They had to reverse it. They knew the industry was not going to roll over and give in to it, because there wouldn’t be an industry if they went ahead,” he said.

“It was basically driven by Scottish Green Party, who it seems don’t want any industry whatsoever, and that includes fishing and aquaculture – they want the whole place put out to grass.

“It caused a huge furore, and has taken up a lot of people’s valuable time to fight something that was really quite unnecessary – it was badly researched, there was no thought or process put into it.

“South of the border they have looked at it, consulted with the industry, and worked on it in a much more methodical way.”

‘Reckless proposals must not be rebadged’

Scottish Conservative shadow rural affairs secretary Rachael Hamilton said: “This is a victory for our fishermen, who made their views known in no uncertain terms that HPMAs would have destroyed the industry and the coastal communities that they support.

“For far too long SNP ministers failed to engage with the industry over what this effective ban on fishing would have meant, as they bowed to the demands of their extremist Green partners.

“The responses to the consultation show that despite the efforts of a concerted campaign to skew the opinions on HPMAs, the vast majority of respondents were opposed to the plans.”

She said the SNP-Green government must be ‘upfront about any future plans for marine protection’, which must not mean expanding current areas without bringing fishermen onboard or reintroducing their previous plans by another means.

Conservative MP for Banff and Buchan David Duguid also warned against ‘kicking the can down the road’.

“While the SNP spin that these proposals have been consigned to history, I have yet to see any indication from Green MSPs such as Lorna Slater that they want to back down over this,” he said.

He said he would support the industry in making sure ‘these reckless proposals aren’t rebadged’ and said that the SNP-Green government must provide ‘absolute clarity that the fishing ban on 10% of Scottish waters won’t return under a different guise in the future’.

Northern Isles Liberal Democrat representatives Alistair Carmichael, Beatrice Wishart and Liam MacArthur also welcomed the decision. They called on the Scottish government to take a new approach to marine protection, restoring trust and letting island and coastal communities lead the process.

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael said the SNP-Green government had not shelved the proposals by choice but because fishing communities across Scotland had challenged the ‘top-down proposals’.

He hoped ministers would learn the lesson that policies which affect coastal and island communities ‘cannot be run from the Central Belt’.

“We all want to see a healthy and protected marine environment, but that needs to be led by local communities, with fishermen an integral part of the discussion. If the government’s plan is just to wait a while and then try again, it will meet with the same result.”

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said the Scottish government had misjudged the strength of feeling in coastal communities about the plans, which had ‘damaged the Scottish government’s credibility in the eyes of many coastal communities’.

“HPMA proposals lacked a solid scientific basis, and moved away from the model of marine protection already in place, which was developed in partnership with the fishing industry and communities,” she said.

“Trust will need to be rebuilt to help address climate change and protect marine biodiversity.”

Orkney MSP Liam MacArthur said the plans to impose HPMAs had met ‘fierce resistance from island and coastal communities all around Scotland’ and ‘turned upside down years of partnership working with the fishing sector and other key stakeholders’.

In the short term, it had affected investment and jobs within the fishing sector, and longer term it had undermined confidence and trust in the government.

“This SNP-Green government needs to drop the ‘ministers know best’ attitude and work with island and coastal communities to deliver effective measures to maintain and enhance our marine environment,” he said.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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