HIGHLY Protected Marine Areas may be dead. But round Scotland’s coastline, communities are busily creating an effective alternative to improve marine protection.

They won’t call a total halt to fishing, fish farming or swimming – provisions which prompted fury during the recent Scottish Government consultation on HPMAs, prompted SNP “rebel” Fergus Ewing to rip up the legislation in the Holyrood Debating Chamber and led to their withdrawal shortly afterwards.

But they do call time on exploitation by developers and unsustainable fishing activity getting the go-ahead without communities having more than a tokenistic and generally belated say.

In short, coastal Scots don’t want Edinburgh-inspired, Holyrood-controlled micro-management of their lives and marine economies, but that doesn’t mean they’re fans of the status quo either.

Indeed, 25 coastal communities are seeking ways to enhance marine protection, via formal conservation agreements or small projects to protect bio-diversity while local, low-impact fishing, angling and leisure activities are allowed to continue.

The HPMA mechanism may be dead, but community marine conservation is alive and kicking and with Scottish Government support, could reshape coastal communities as completely as the land buyouts of Eigg, Assynt, Knoydart and Gigha in the 1990s.

The location of control is changing from Bute House to the Scottish shoreline. I wonder if Fergus Ewing approves?

Take Duror and Kentallen – 20 miles south of Fort William on the striking south-west shores of Loch Linnhe. This community of around 300 people once thought marine conservation simply meant trying to stop holidaymakers dumping waste and litter on the beautiful beach at Cuil Bay – named in a Scottish newspaper as one of the top 10 in Scotland for wildlife.

But discussion about protecting their coastline from “dirty camping” coincided with proposals by Loch Long Salmon to site a massive new fish farm and processing plant, nearby – the largest in Scotland.

Those plans have since been shelved, for Cuil Bay anyway.

But the experience widened horizons and prompted the creation of a pioneering land, cultural and marine conservation group called MACCOLL, to protect wild salmon spawning in the area, map and research the current state of wild fish, and restore the whole coastal habitat – marine life, local people, heritage, traditions and native forest.

One option currently under consideration is to create a Demonstration and Research Marine reserve, following the example of Fair Isle.

Achieving this community-led designation will be onerous and time consuming, but MACCOLL has signed up around a third of local residents and pulled local business, government and political interests on board.

Already the small, dispersed Duror community has started mapping the sea bed to track fish movements and patterns of migration with the aim of “sea wilding” via “community sea crofts” – an idea being piloted further north on Skye.

It’s also applied to transfer coast land owned by Forest Land Scotland into community control with the aim of tackling the Japanese Knotweed invading local rivers, extending the Atlantic rainforest and developing new oyster beds and seaweed forests in the pristine waters of Loch Linnhe – creating links with schools to devise citizen science projects and qualifications that encourage the next generation of marine conservationists.

It’s heady stuff. According to MACCOLL organiser Liz Paul, a recent event to introduce snorkel seabed mapping attracted 20 locals.

“Now we’ve discovered a sense of purpose about the future of our coastline, no-one wants to be left out.”

Indeed, the group’s name pays tribute to local human heritage. Former resident and historian Professor Jim Hunter once observed that Agnes and Innes MacColl, who ran the Duror Post Office, could trace their ancestry further back than the local Stewarts, one of whose number, James Stewart of the Glens was famously and wrongfully executed for the Appin Murder.

Agnes MacColl is now the oldest living, born and bred resident of Duror and using her surname to spearhead this conservation plan makes a powerful link between human and marine heritage.

Cuil Bay was the last salmon bag net station in Scotland and records from 1583 talk of salmon in the local river and herring shoals so large they washed up on beaches and were used to fertilise the fields.

Old fathom maps record an area of the seabed called “skate bank” – so the critically endangered flapper skate once thrived locally. All of this is being researched and recorded – the memories of the last local salmon fisherman and stories of pirates who frequented the Duror coast are as important to the human restoration work of MACCOLL as mapping the contours of the sea-bed.

But can conservation, marine research and human ecology employ local people?

MACCOLL aims to model itself on COAST in Arran which employs five people on educational programmes and training conservationists. They also hope there will be research, mapping work and projects for PHD graduates associated with the Scottish Association of Marine Science.

Sea-wilding, small scale sustainable shellfish and seaweed farming could create jobs, local watersports companies could expand and local fishermen could find their catches improve with marine protection.

MACCOLL is not alone.

It’s the newest and 25th member of the Coastal Communities Network of local groups committed to preserving and safeguarding Scotland’s coasts and seas.

This network emerged in 2017 from a partnership between international conservation NGO Fauna & Flora – backed by David Attenborough, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall among others – and divers in Lamlash Bay in Arran (COAST) who set up one of Britain’s first no take zones by agreement with local fishermen almost 30 years ago.

Fauna and Flora finance marine conservation worldwide and are helping community groups around Scotland to manage their own coastal areas, in the wake of the HPMA collapse.

Might this be the model that puts the Scottish Government’s plans for marine conservation back on track – a grassroots conservation model that’s genuinely “bottom up”, flexible about sustainable commercial activity and mercifully free from Holyrood micro-management? Maybe.

Yet ironically MACCOLL might not have happened without the galvanising effect of the local fish farm application.

According to Paul: “We realised how valuable our marine environment is to all of us. When you walk along the coast, you imagine it will always stay the same, but of course with commercial pressures and climate change – nothing stays the same unless you act to make sure it does.

“Now we’re fully alert and determined to pull every interest in this community together to protect the marine environment. The days of sitting back and waiting for someone else with more knowledge, qualifications, or money to look after our coastline are over.”

Meanwhile, political pressure mounts on the Scottish Government to revisit marine conservation in the wake of the HPMA debacle.

The Open Seas group – one member of a wider alliance of over 130 fishers, businesses, local communities and environmentalists, says: “One of the great failures of the HPMA debacle was how it skewed the debate on marine protection, creating a false narrative that all fishing businesses and coastal communities oppose greater spatial protections of inshore waters.

“In fact, there’s a strong understanding of the need to protect fish populations and marine ecosystems.”

Now this isn’t to say all fishing is bad, all conservation is good and all restoration will be easy But the best folk to get the balance right are local coastal communities – not the inhabitants of Bute House, Holyrood or Victoria Quay.

Civil servants and politicians must now simplify systems and ensure this small community revolution along our coastlines is as smooth and straightforward as humanly possible.