IT is one of the many issues that divided the SNP leadership candidates – although it is perhaps the one the public know the least about.

Kate Forbes said she would scrap the Scottish Government’s plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which are listed as one of the commitments of the Bute House Agreement.

However, upon his victory in the election Humza Yousaf reaffirmed his support for the deal with the Scottish Greens which, as a result, means that the implementation of HPMAs is still very much on the cards.

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Yet even though the legislation is only at the consultation stage, it has already generated controversy amongst coastal communities in the Highlands and Islands.

But what are HPMAs and why are they being floated as a means to boost biodiversity in our waters?

What is a HPMA?

“We’re describing them as ocean recovery zones,” said Calum Duncan, head of conservation for the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland.

“Good practice for managing marine environments means deciding what activities can take place in certain areas.

“So, ideally, you have core protection zones where you allow nature to exist without much human impact.

“Around that you’ll likely have buffer zones where lighter activities can take place and radiating out from them you’ll have higher activity zones.

“What this legislation would do is create those core protection zones.”

Indeed, the HPMAs proposed by the Scottish Government – which would see 10% of Scotland’s seas designated as HPMAs by 2026 – put an end to the vast majority of human activities that may cause negative impacts on the environment.

That means no fishing, no aquaculture, no oil and gas exploration, no commercial seaweed harvesting, and no offshore wind infrastructure.

Don’t we already have protected areas in our seas?

Around 37% of Scotland’s seas are already designated as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

This includes zones marked out for preservation of historical sites such as shipwrecks as well as those protected for the sake of biodiversity.

But while 37% of our seas are protected, dredging and bottom-trawling is still permitted in 95% of the country’s coastal waters – practices which can have severely harmful impacts on habitats such as coral beds and seagrass meadows.

“The MPA network was set up to protect the best of what’s left of a range of species and habitats,” said Duncan. “But that process wasn’t looking at what species and habitats do for the sea in terms of locking up carbon or providing important areas for commercial fish and shellfish.

“With these ocean recovery zones we have a chance to restore damaged areas.”

How badly do our marine habitats need further protection?

“Scotland’s seas are in historically bad condition,” said Nick Underdown, a campaigner for Open Seas, a group calling for improved conservation of Scotland’s marine environment and more sustainable management of the fishing industry.

“We’ve seen declines in the extent and distribution of marine habitats across all of Scotland’s marine regions.”

While reduction in quotas for certain species have paid dividends for fishermen, with some now anecdotally noting increases in the numbers of juvenile and adult cod in places where numbers were previously lower, the bigger picture is less rosy.

Underdown added: “West coast cod are at historic lows and international scientific advice is not to catch anymore of them.

The National: Seabirds and their sources of food are under pressure from changes in the sea temperature and avian fluSeabirds and their sources of food are under pressure from changes in the sea temperature and avian flu

“Yet the Scottish Government continues to issue a quota for cod because they are caught as by-catch by bottom trawlers.”

It’s not just cod that are trouble. The latest Scottish Marine Assessment published in 2020 found that 46% of the stocks it evaluated were overfished.

While populations of dolphins and whales have remained stable (and in the case of bottlenose dolphins on the east coast even improved), climate change, avian flu, and plastic pollution continue to pose threats to a wide range of species from seabirds to plankton.

That’s before even factoring in the loss of species that occurred before scientists were recording them regularly, such as the complete disappearance of native oysters in the Firth of Forth.

Why are some people against HPMAs?

The crux of it is that while practices such as scallop dredging would be banned in HPMAs so, too, would more sustainable fishery modules.

Gordon Turnbull, whose business supplies supermarkets such as the Co-op, Waitrose and M&S with sustainably farmed pacific oysters from Mull, told The National that HPMAs were too blunt an instrument.

He said: “Our business is an incredibly sustainable process. We don’t put anything into the water, the oysters filter feed and improve the water quality – it’s recognised as a very green process.

“So to have this landed on us, that we wouldn’t be permitted to operate within a Highly Protected Marine Area, it just flies in the face of all science and what we’re trying to do here, which is provide and protect year-round jobs.

“We’re in designated shellfish protected waters and already fighting against a land-based polluter.

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“Yet should this area be zoned as a HPMA, they could continue polluting the water from land because it’s not within the remit. But we’d have to fold. It’s just crazy. It’s a blunt instrument and it’s going to be incredibly damaging.”

In an open letter to the Scottish Government, Kenneth MacLean, a councillor in Barra, said that HPMA’s would destroy coastal communities in the Highlands and Islands.

He called on ministers to focus on more targeted measures, such as appropriately policing existing marine areas, instead of going through a process which causes anxiety for communities that are economically reliant on the industries in these zones.

Speaking to The National, he said: “This is an attack on our culture. Thanks to the Clearances and various other elements of our history, much of our culture has been beaten to the very edges.

“But it’s hard not to point out the hypocrisy when the Scottish Government say they're going to protect your culture by donning a wee bit of tartan and then they announce a policy which economically devastate us overnight.”

He added that the process in which the Scottish Government engages with rural communities engendered these kinds of problems.

“I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to go ahead because it’s such a ludicrous idea.

“But it shouldn’t have reached that point in the first place. It’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of money and it’s a waste of effort and stress on the behalf of these communities.”

Do they work?

Kate Forbes has claimed that there is “no evidence” that HPMAs actually achieve what they set out to.

This is based on the fact that no other European country has implemented schemes known as HPMAs.

However, a European wide study of marine reserves – which typically fully protect areas from commercial activity much like HPMAs – published in 2011 showed that they can be an effective tool in increasing biomass, density and species diversity in protected waters.

For heavily fished species the benefits were particularly dramatic, with some having 10 times higher biomass or density within reserves compared to areas outside of them.

What’s the Scottish Government saying?

The Scottish Government stresses that they are still in the early stages of the consultation and that the fishing industry and other businesses reliant on the marine environment will be listened to.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We want island communities to thrive and be able to benefit from their huge natural assets. We recognise the need to support their sustainable future - that is why we are improving marine protection, a necessity in a climate and nature emergency.

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“Highly Protected Marine Areas would allow key species and habitats to restore and recover, benefiting both nature and our economy by making sure there are sustainable levels of fish and other marine products to be derived and benefitted from our seas.

“We are currently at the early stages of consulting on the principles which will inform our overall approach to the future development of Highly Protected Marine Areas and how sites will be identified and selected. As this work progresses, we will be working closely with the fishing industry and other marine users.”

What’s the way forward?

It’s worth remembering that this legislation is only at the consultation stage – stakeholders are being given the opportunity to let the government know their concerns.

Currently, there’s no indication of exactly where these areas would be or whether sustainable practices could be exempt (although that perhaps provides little comfort to the communities fearing for their livelihoods).

“Our perspective is that it would be absolutely crazy if HPMAs undermined the prospects and viability of low impact fishing practices in Scotland’s inshore waters,” said Nick Underdown.

“We would like to see those fisheries being actively safeguarded through the establishment of low impact fishing zones. Give those communities certainty that they will not be detrimentally impacted by HPMAs.”

In another time, protecting Scotland’s marine environment might seem like it could be a unifying political issue.

It’s not as if you meet people who think polluting the sea or decimating fish populations are things the Scottish Government should be doing more of.

But making a commitment to arrest the worst of our country’s decline in biodiversity by 2030 (and markedly improving it 2045) requires changes to the way our marine environments are governed. Big changes.

“We have to invest in the health of the sea now in order to reap the benefits later,” said Duncan.

“It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a challenge. But, ultimately, if we want these environments to exist for our children, we have to act.”