MAIRI McAllan has announced Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will no longer be implemented by the Scottish Government in 10% of the country’s waters by 2026.

Delivering the statement to Parliament on Thursday, McAllan said delaying the date was due to concern raised over the short timeframe ministers had to work with coastal communities to deliver the plans.

A consultation closed last month sparked more than 4000 responses, including serious concerns from island communities.

Groups representing fishing industries were also strongly opposed to the proposals.

The minister told Holyrood that she “listened intently” to those concerns, stressing that she has “no doubt of the strong views both for and against” the plans.

She added: "While we remain firmly committed to the outcome of enhanced marine protection, the proposal as consulted on will not be progressed.

“This means we will no longer seek to implement HMPAs across 10% of Scotland’s seas by 2026.”

McAllan insisted that she had engaged constructively with the Scottish Greens, for whom the policy was a key part of the power-sharing deal. 

Instead, she said a new way forward will be developed with a view to making Scotland “nature-positive” by 2030.

Despite the decision, she stressed the importance of protecting Scotland's marine ecosystems.

McAllan said: “We are in the midst of a nature and climate crisis and we must be prepared to take action commensurate with the scale of that challenge.

“Failure to safeguard and improve the resilience of Scotland’s marine ecosystems to a changing climate risks the very basis on which our marine industries and coastal communities are built.

“We chose to consult as early and widely as possible on the principles of HPMAs, with no pre-determined sites. It has always been, and continues to be, this government’s plan to work cooperatively with communities to identify how and where to enhance marine protection in a way that minimises impact and maximises opportunity.

“Therefore, while we remain firmly committed to the outcome of enhanced marine protection, the proposal as consulted on will not be progressed.

“I will outline more on our next steps after the summer recess, but I hope that it is clear that 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 remote, coastal and island communities.”

The National: Kate Forbes

Kate Forbes – one of the scheme’s most outspoken critics including during the SNP leadership campaign – welcomed the decision and urged island communities to continue to engage with future marine protection consultations. 

The Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP said any future proposal must be shaped by fishermen and communities.

Forbes added: “This is a welcome change in tack by the Scottish Government. I am relieved that the Scottish Government has agreed to halt the proposal for Highly Protected Marine Areas as consulted on earlier this year. 

“I said in March that I would ditch HPMAs if elected as leader, knowing how widespread opposition was amongst coastal communities. That was born of genuine fear for the future of rural communities, as fishing is a lifeline for many. 

“I am grateful to the Cabinet Secretary who has listened to appeals from across Scotland and acted decisively. This announcement will come as an immense relief to those who. understood the risk to coastal communities from the very beginning. 

“Of course, it is now critical that any new proposals for marine protected areas take into account communities’ views, fishermen’s lived experiences and the importance of a truly just transition. I have confidence in any new proposals that are shaped by fishermen.”

Angus MacNeil also expressed delight, calling it "a victory for common sense".

The Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP MP said he had been in constant contact with McAllan over the last few months stressing repeatedly the strength of feeling against HPMAs in the islands.

ALBA Westminster Leader Neale Hanvey said that, if allowed to go ahead, it "would have been an act of vandalism against our fishing communities for no benefit whatsoever."

The SNP's policy convener, Toni Giugliano, called for SNP members to debate the issue at the next party conference. He added that it should be led by the party's coastal branches. 

He said: "The SNP as a party has never properly debated the issue at a party conference. While there’s a commitment on marine protection in the manifesto, the party, through its democratic bodies, has never had its say.

"Mairi McAllan was very clear that we're still committed to the desired outcome of the original policy, but how we go about it needs to be co-designed locally and address sector concerns."

He added: "Let's have this debate as a party, driven by the communities affected. But let's also make the approach community-led with a real focus on community empowerment and give local authorities real teeth in its implementation.”

Conservative MSPs said there should be a more comprehensive commitment to scrap the proposals.

Rachael Hamilton said HPMAs had been “universally” opposed by the communities they affected.

Finlay Carson asked if the minister would apologise.

McAllan told him she takes the matter “exceptionally seriously”, adding: “Regardless of politicking from the Conservatives, I will continue to do that.”