LORNA Slater has refused to say if plans to ban fishing off large parts of the Scottish coast are a "red line" in the Bute House Agreement amid a "looming SNP rebellion" over the matter.

The proposals for the Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) have sparked fury in coastal and island communities and have even been compared to the Highland Clearances by campaigners with even a protest song written about them hitting the charts.

As well as banning fishing in at least 10 per of Scottish water, the tough new regulations would also prohibit any industrial activities, including dredging and cabling for wind farms. Recreational activities would also be subject to strict monitoring and management. 

Ministers insist HPMAs will conserve marine ecosystems while providing economic and social benefits. A consultation on them closed this week.

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The plans are included in the Bute House Agreement signed between the Scottish Greens and the SNP suggesting they are a firm government policy commitment between the two parties.

But yesterday, following growing criticism of the proposals from within the SNP the First Minister appeared to suggest he would taking a flexible approach to the issue, insisting the government would not “impose these policies on communities that don't want them.”

Rhoda Grant, a Labour MSP, asked the minister if the proposals can be scrapped or if they are a “red line” for the Scottish Greens in the powersharing agreement with the SNP.

Ms Slater did not say whether HPMAs were "a red line" and said: “The consultation has only just closed. It includes a very wide range of views which we will now consider and assess.

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“Of course, it is important to create the right balance in our marine space. We recognise the importance of continued investment in Scotland’s seafood and wider marine sectors as well as balancing the needs for eco-marine protection and for renewable energy.”

SNP MSP Alasdair Allan, who represents the Western Isles, told Holyrood MSPs understand the need to “tackle biodiversity loss”, but added: “In many parts of the Highlands and islands, human communities are at risk.”

Labour and the Scottish Conservatives have called for proposals to be scrapped completely.

Scottish Government minister Ms Slater said she is aware of the “strength of feeling” in relation to the proposals, but stressed that no sites to be considered as HPMAs have yet been selected, and the input of fishing communities will be “crucial” to any such decisions.

But both Labour and the Tories urged the Government to scrap the plans.

The Herald:

Former finance secretary and SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes.  Photo Jane Barlow/PA.

Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston said communities are “up in arms”, adding there is an “SNP rebellion looming”.

He added: “Will the minister now drop these plans and, going back to the drawing board, engage fully to find agreement with local communities and stakeholders on a way forward?”

The First Minister was challenged on the policy by Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton as he set out his priorities for government in Holyrood on Tuesday afternoon. 
She urged him to “drop the reckless HPMA proposals.”

Responding, Mr Yousaf said he had heard and listened “to the concerns of our coastal, our island, our fishing communities.” 

He added: “The constitution, of course, that closed yesterday. No criteria, no site selection has been made. We will analyse the consultation. 

“But having spoken this morning to [Rural Affairs Secretary] Màiri McAllan, she will, and we will as a government, engage with those coastal communities, with those fishing communities to hear from them.

“A very basic principle that we have always operated by, and I continue to reaffirm and confirm today, is that we are not going to impose these policies on communities that don't want them." 

Earlier in the day, Orkney MSP Liam McArthur also raised his concerns about the impact of HPMAs on the islands. 

The Lib Dem said: "Coastal and island communities rely on the marine environment. It goes without saying that protecting stocks and the biodiversity of our waters is of paramount importance.

"However, the approach being taken by the Scottish Government to HPMAs appears overly-rigid and likely to do real damage to those communities.”

He said the government should scrap plans to introduce the restrictions by 2026 and commit to a “more flexible, tailored and proportionate model”. 

Last week, Donald MacNeil, a fisherman in Barra, and Angus MacPhail, the founder of Skipinnish released a single called “The Clearances Again.”

It was shared on social media by former finance secretary and Mr Yousaf's SNP leadership rival, Kate Forbes, who is opposed to the plans.

During the SNP leadership contest, which saw her narrowly defeated by Mr Yousaf, she said she would scrap the proposals if she became First Minister.

Mr MacPhail said HPMAs posed “the biggest peacetime risk to our communities since the Highland Clearances and give zero regard to the effective local management of these waters.”

“To be told by officials in Edinburgh that they know better than those of us in the fishing community is frankly insulting and proves they know nothing of how we operate and how fragile the economy of these communities are,” he added.

In a statement released later on Tuesday, Ms McAllan said the government was committed to tackling the climate emergency "via a fair and just transition which empowers communities and shares in the benefits of a green economy."