Scotland’s Net Zero Secretary has defended her government’s controversial plans to expand protected marine areas – insisting that no sites have been identified and proposals will not be “imposed” on coastal communities.

Fishing bosses have reacted angrily to plans by the Scottish Government to consider introducing highly protected marine areas (HMPAs).

Under the plans, designated areas would be under rules to “strictly protect and leave undisturbed, all natural processes of the marine ecosystem”, including “the seabed, water column habitats and everything that lives in the protected area”.

This would mean no fishing activity could take place within the designated areas.

Scottish ministers have committed to designate at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs by 2026.

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Currently, Scotland has an existing marine protected areas (MPAs) network which covers 37% of the country’s seas and includes sites of various designations and rules.

The proposals state that the HMPAs “may overlap either fully or partially with existing MPAs” or “may also be located outside the current MPA network”.

The Scottish Government has stressed the proposals are similar to those being developed across the EU.

But fisheries bosses have warned the plans will lead to “far-reaching consequences” for communities and industries.

Speaking exclusively to The Herald, Net Zero Secretary, Mairi McAllan, insisted the proposals are “very important”.

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The cabinet secretary pointed to the importance of protecting Scotland’s seas.

She said: “We know that the oceans, its ecosystems and species’ abundance are so important to tackling climate change, to having a balance in our natural world.

“Actually, the sea is under pressure to an extent where it's not able to fulfil those natural functions for us.

“So we know that by having protected areas, we can restore precious ecosystems, we can sure up species abundance.”

Ms McAllan pointed to the existing MPA near Lamlash Bay off the Aran coast, where a no-take zone has been in place since 2008.

She said: “And after 10 years, some species were demonstrating a 400% increase in abundance, which is incredible.”

The SNP minister acknowledged the concerns raised by communities and industry.

She said: “I totally, not only understand and care about how coastal and island communities feel.

“I also understood that they would feel that way. And that's why I wanted to consult so early in the process.”

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Ms McAllan added: “We have not, we are not at the stage of having any sites in mind.

“The consultation that closed on Monday was about going out at the earliest possible time and actually consulting on the principles of what we were talking about here and the criteria that might constitute site selection.

“I'm going to meet with coastal MSPs shortly, I'm going to go out over the summer to meet with some communities.

“But I firmly believe that you don't impose policies on communities, you work hand in hand with them to make them work. And that's the only way to do it sustainably.”

The Herald: Liam McArthurLiam McArthur (Image: PA)

Scottish LibDems's environment spokesperson and Orkney MSP, Liam McArthur said: "I welcome the cabinet secretary’s willingness to engage and trust she shares the First Minister’s view that HPMAs should not be imposed on coastal and island communities against their wishes. 

"Islanders know better than most the importance of our marine environment. Indeed, my Orkney constituency is already home to innovative efforts to manage and monitor stocks and biodiversity."

He added: "There is no doubt that the initial proposals set out by the government go too far. They would cost livelihoods and threaten the viability of communities.

"Any future scheme must be developed with coastal and island communities at the forefront at every stage. Arbitrary, top down targets dictated by ministers in Edinburgh won’t cut it."

Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive Elspeth Macdonald has warned that “designating at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs will have far-reaching consequences for Scotland’s coastal and island communities and economies”.

She claimed that the idea “lacks a proper evidence base and does not articulate with any clarity what government is aiming to achieve”.

Salmon Scotland chief executive Tavish Scott, said that “banning responsible sea use is not the answer” to protecting marine environments.

He added: “We have grave concerns that HPMAs as currently proposed will result in significant job losses in some of our most fragile coastal communities, and damage the Scottish Government's own blue economy approach that supports sustainable economic growth.

“If government proposals force salmon farmers out of marine areas, business will lose confidence in Scotland and turn their attention to our Scandinavian competitors. That means Scotland losing out on good, well-paid jobs and investment when we need it most.”