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The Highly Protected Marine Areas proposals should be totally abandoned, says Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP Angus MacNeil.

Urging islanders to make their views known in the consultation, Mr MacNeil said: “HPMAs are ill-conceived, not thought through, and are not something that any island or coastal community would impose upon themselves. It is driven by people who don’t understand the issues. In short, the whole scheme should be put in a recycling dustbin. Having taken part in an online consultation last month, and as an islander, I got little comfort from the concepts and was only alarmed at the idea.

“Thankfully, no such step has been thought of for the countryside or in cities. Making a blanket 10% of places, at land or sea, ‘verboten’ is not sustainable.”

The MP continued that small-scale environmentally-friendly marine activity has been going on for generations and that the Marine Protected areas will destroy much of that.

“Island communities need to be protected from these so-called environmental protectors, who are damaging and many feel even dangerous, with their ill-conceived schemes,” he added.

The MP will now urge the Scottish Government to rethink the “damaging proposals”.

Commented Mr MacNeil: “It may, of course, come to pass that a change in SNP First Minister could signal the end of these doomsday proposals. I will certainly encourage any new First Minister to ditch this dangerous bill.

“The [consultation] closing date is April 17th, and I would urge constituents to make their voices heard and submit responses even if it is a short response, simply saying it should be ditched.”

And the Scottish fishermen's leaders have weighed into the debate on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), with a damning indictment of the idea issued yesterday (Monday 20 March).

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) said HPMAs would have catastrophic impact on fishing industry and called on Scottish Government ministers to pause, reflect and rethink.

Western Isles Fishermen’s Association representative Duncan MacInnes said that island fishermen were ‘totally opposed’ to the concept of HPMAs.

The Scottish Government has proposed placing 10% of national waters under HPMAs banning fishing for recreation or for food in a bid to create conservation zones.

In England, three HPMAs covering just 0.53% of English waters are to be trialled as pilots. 

The SFF said today that the strict conservation zones defined as HPMAs were far too big a price for fishermen to pay, lacked ecological justification and were being introduced for purely political reasons. 

Scotland’s existing network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) already covers 37% of its seas, and the impact of those needs to be fully understood before additional restrictions are imposed, they said.

SFF chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: “The Scottish Government’s blue economy plans have been hijacked by the Greens and will push the fishing industry into the red.

“Fishing has a very low carbon footprint relative to other forms of protein, and the Scottish Government’s own healthy diet guidance is for people to eat fish at least twice a week.

“And yet on top of the existing spatial squeeze caused by the dash to build huge offshore windfarms with little consideration for their impact on fisheries, the Government wants to close a further 10% of our waters to fishing vessels – with no evidence whatsoever that doing so will achieve ministers’ vague conservation aims, nor any attempt to understand the effect of displacing the fishing fleet.

“The underlying assumptions are that fishing is damaging to the environment and stocks are degraded. Neither is justifiable, and in fact the Government’s own indicators show that sustainability of commercially fished stocks is on a continuing upwards trend.”  

The Western Isles are trailblazers for sustainable fishing, according to Duncan MacInnes of WIFA. He said: “We are always at the leading edge of environmental initiatives.

“The land and the sea have successfully supported food and fishing for generations and we hope that will continue. We have localised stocks of non-migratory species which, when they were unfished, were in poor condition.

“Unless you are harvesting it in a sustainable way it will go out of balance, particularly with non-migratory species.”

Duncan also pointed to the economic damage that the uncertainty around planning for HPMAs has already had on investment.

He said: “There is so much uncertainty, since they haven’t identified sites or said whether they will be inshore or offshore. Other than that they will be introduced by the end of this government in 2026, there is no concrete information.

“That has prevented investment on sea and on land. It’s creating such uncertainty that no-one is prepared to invest and it’s not just fishing but all marine activity, including leisure fishing.”

Meanwhile, instead of entirely dismissing the concept of HPMAs, the SFF is proposing that two, carefully-designed pilot areas are designated, one inshore and one offshore, that would allow government and stakeholders to work together, learn how to introduce them properly and plan the data collection and analysis needed to assess their impact.

Ms Macdonald added: “This extremely poor HPMA policy literally emerged from the blue – from the Bute House Agreement in fact – when Scotland already has an extensive MPA (Marine Protected Area) network that the SFF and the fishing industry has been closely involved in creating.

“SFF is urging the Scottish Government to have a radical rethink on this and at very least accept our alternative proposal for two pilot projects to assess the need, practicalities and costs/benefits in a proper scientific manner.

“As they stand, the proposals will have a catastrophic impact on the fishing industry and our coastal communities that depend on it for jobs and income.

“What is proposed in Scotland are permanent designations of at least 10% of our seas, to a completely unrealistic timescale and with no proper foundations for their purpose.

“This is not how to make good policy, and we call on Scottish Government to pause, reflect and re-think.”

The picture is of small fishing vessels in the Sound of Harris and is by Angus Stan Macleod.