The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation wants a “radical rethink” to the Scottish Government’s plan to designate 10 per cent of our waters Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA) by 2026. Without such a rethink, says SFF chief executive, Elspeth Macdonald, the impact on island communities will be catastrophic.

It is, undoubtedly true that the HPMAs will have a dramatic impact on the fishing industry – if not possibly “catastrophic” in some places – but it always worries me when people start talking about human communities, which can shift, adapt, and even find new work and have long had to do so, in the same way as scientists are now talking about the environment.

We hear, for instance, that an HPMA on Tiree, where the area to be designated would pose an “existential threat to the community”. The tale that begins to dominate is that the real threat is to human livelihood, and the damage to marine ecosystems by the fishing industry is dismissed.

It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for those whose jobs may be under threat, but it bothers me that in sounding the alarm for them, the concern over the environment gets diluted. Elspeth Macdonald also said the Scottish Government’s blue economy plans “have been hijacked by the Greens and will push the fishing industry into the red”.

READ MORE: A Scottish salmon farm visit. Haunted by mortalities and jellyfish

But the seas and the life within them are part of our life support system, and we can’t afford to push that into the red.

And it's not as if I don't have any skin in the game. News has also emerged of another row over  'insane' plans to limit recreational activities such as swimming in the areas. For me, marine health is more important than my freedom to swim anywhere. 

Naturally, the communities most worried about impact on fishing are those already surrounded by waters that are part of the MPA network, and therefore likely targets – so objections are coming from Tiree, the Outer Hebrides and Shetland. Such was the concern in the Western Isles’ Comhairle’s primary industries’ working group that it declared “the community of the Outer Hebrides must take control of our own fisheries”.

“We need to remove the threat of HPMAs,” it said, “and open discussions with government around devolution of control of our fisheries.”

The SFF, meanwhile, have put forward their own proposition, which they describe as “two carefully designed pilot areas... 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”.

This proposal may sound positive. But it also feels like a delaying tactic, an attempt to keep something closer to the status quo by complicating and diluting.

Just last month, we have seen the UK Government’s proposal of five HPMAs around England reduced to just three. The speed at which we are forging meaningful marine protection, as Profesor Callum Roberts pointed out on Radio 4’s Today programme, is excruciatingly slow. “At this rate of progress, it will take 260 years to get to the level of protection that science says we need.”

I also can’t help thinking the SFF’s proposal would be more convincing if the federation wasn’t so prone to playing down the environmental impact of fishing. If, for instance, they hadn’t, in 2021, described overfishing as a “myth”.

We are told, for instance, by the SFF, that stocks are on an upward sustainability trend. Well, yes, some stocks may be on an upward trend, but not all.

The lowest adult population of cod in the west of Scotland was recorded in 2021. As Nick Underdown of Open Seas told me, “The claim that fish stocks are all on an upward trend only holds true if you ignore the condition of our inshore and west coast fish populations.”

Earlier this month, Oceana UK published its latest analysis of data from Global Fishing Watch and revealed that UK and EU vessels spent over 136,000 hours appearing to fish in supposedly “protected” British marine areas in 2022, with at least 7,000 hours involving destructive bottom towed fishing gear.

One way of bolstering protection, not just from trawling but other damages, is an HPMA. We already know that they work.

The no-take zone at Lamlash Bay is one such example. Since 2008, no fish or shellfish have been permitted to be taken from the waters, and life has flourished.

The zone has become a nursery for juvenile fish, including cod; king scallop population has risen to 3.7 times what it was in 2013 and lobsters inside the zone produce 5.7 times more eggs than those outside.

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READ MORE: Highly Protected Marine Areas need 'radical rethink'

The real danger is that HPMAs just become another iteration of paper parks – under-policed and ineffectual – whilst also banning less-damaging fishing practices and unnecessarily restricting leisure activities.

As Nick Underdown told me, “Everyone knows that bottom-trawling and scallop dredging is damaging our marine ecosystems and is unsustainable. Something needs to change.”

Any “radical rethink” needs nature at its heart.