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Viewpoint / HPMAs are needed, but can only work with coastal communities at the table

Caitlin Turner

In recent weeks, there’s been increasing debate surrounding ministers’ plans to introduce Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), writes marine biologist and conservationist Caitlin Turner.

Based on mounting coverage of opposition to these sites, you’d be forgiven for assuming that ‘HPMA’ stood for ‘Highly Problematic Marine Area’. But what are HPMAs? And why are they facing so much opposition?

The Bute House Agreement – a policy programme agreed between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party – plans to designate at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs by 2026.

Through their designation and management, HPMAs aim to ‘protect all elements of the marine ecosystem within their boundaries’, by prohibiting or limiting human activities.

Commercial and recreational fishing will not be permitted, nor will any form of aquaculture, oil and gas, or renewables operations. Some recreational activities – swimming, SCUBA diving, and recreational boating – are expected to still be permitted, subject to careful management.

It’s hoped that through this, HPMAs can facilitate marine ecosystem recovery, contribute to the mitigation of climate change and its effects, and enhance the benefits that coastal communities and others derive from Scottish seas.

That’s the background, laid out within the draft HPMA Policy Framework. But HPMAs also come with glaring risks: how will those whose livelihoods depend upon our seas be impacted by their designation? The opposition to HPMAs is largely centred around this concern.

Scotland – particularly our coastal communities – has a historic, intrinsic connection to our seas. Stories, language, and culture have been shaped by them. Lives depend on them. Plopping an area that prohibits all commercial activity on the doorstep of a coastal fishing village could have devastating consequences.

However, environmentalists are also justified in their concern about the continued decline of our seas. There is extensive evidence to suggest that HPMAs are needed: Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 revealed that disturbance to the seabed is a widespread and serious problem, with losses in extent recorded for many of our Priority Marine Features, including blue mussels, flame shells and maerl beds, and serpulid reefs.

There’s consensus in scientific literature that strictly protected sites do allow for recovery of marine ecosystems which have been degraded by human activity.

Seafood industry and council to strongly object to highly protected marine area proposals

Studies have recorded higher abundances, larger sizes, more diversity, and greater reproductive outputs of marine species within these areas compared to surrounding sites that are either wholly unprotected, or only partially protected.

Other recorded benefits include restored ecosystem complexity, in turn increasing resilience to the effects of climate change.

What’s more, as a result of leaving nature to recover, there is evidence that the areas surrounding these sites have benefitted from an ‘overspill’ effect; whereby surrounding fish and shellfish stocks are supplemented by population increase spilling over the boundary, and larger, more valuable animals also migrating into unprotected waters, boosting surrounding fisheries.

Further economic benefit can also be brought about by ecotourism, and consequent support to businesses local to the HPMA site.

This isn’t just a phenomenon observed far-off overseas, it’s happened in our very own home waters. The tiny Lamlash Bay No-Take Zone, off the Isle of Arran, is a world-renowned success story of the environmental and socio-economic benefits that can come from establishing a strictly protected area.

And it was driven by the community. The Community of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), formed after recognising the desperate need to protect Arran’s local marine environment after it was degraded by intense bottom-trawling and dredging. Lamlash shows that, here in Scotland, HPMAs can work, and communities can thrive alongside them, when they shape the process.

The main issue underpinning the HPMA maelstrom is that they seem to have been proposed in isolation from any other management measures for our seas.

Sites within the Scottish MPA Network which currently lack management are supposed to have this in place by 2024. Fisheries Management Plans are meant to come into play. National Marine Plan 2 is looming somewhere in the shadows.

There are plans to continue expansion of offshore wind and aquaculture, further contributing to the spatial squeeze already faced by marine industries. We don’t know how, and if, this is being addressed collectively. Right now, these pieces of the wider Scottish marine puzzle are scattered across the floor, and somewhere within it all sit HPMAs.

None of this will work successfully, unless it is all pieced together.

Where do we go from here? HPMAs are needed. There’s evidence to support this. But they must be factored into wider spatial management plans, rather than designated in isolation. Designating areas solely for low-impact fishing methods, alongside areas where mobile gear can operate over less sensitive ecosystems, for example, could begin to address displacement.

But when plans are being made and lines drawn to establish management or protection, they must be done so with coastal communities not only in mind but at the table. Without meaningful engagement and co-design, HPMAs risk harming the livelihoods of the communities, and undermining their very purpose to conserve nature.

HPMAs have been proven to be highly effective in tackling biodiversity loss and allowing ecosystems to recover. But conserving the livelihoods of the people that depend on the marine environment is equally as important.

If implemented properly, as part of broader spatial management, strong marine protection will contribute not just to stronger fishing fleets but to many other aspects of our coastal economies. If not, policymakers will be setting environment against economy yet again, and both will lose.


This article was first published in Bella Caledonia on 31 March.
Caitlin Turner is the policy officer for the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust (SIFT). She tweets at @thatsealgirl

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