THE SNP minister in charge of controversial marine conservation plans has insisted they will not be imposed on unwilling communities and hinted at further consultation on them.

Net Zero Secretary Mairi McAllan described a listening exercise which closed last month and provoked a huge backlash as merely an “initial consultation” after briefing MPs and MSPs. 

Around 40 parliamentarians with constituency interests took part in the call ahead of the first of two Holyrood debates on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) this week.

Shetland Liberal Democrat MSP Beatrice Wishart has a member’s debate tonight, while the Tories will go further and force a vote on rethinking HMPAs in their debate time tomorrow.

A key plank of the SNP-Green joint government deal, HPMAs would see strict limits on human activity such as swimming and aquaculture in at least 10% of Scotland’s waters.

The areas are supposed to be designated by the end of the current parliament in 2026.

However the issue has proved hugely unpopular in the coastal and island communities which could be affected, with warnings the fishing ban could destroy their way of life.

A number of SNP MPs and MSPs are worried, including leadership runner-up Kate Forbes, the MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badeoch, as well as former minister Fergus Ewing.

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Ms Forbes called for HPMAs to be ditched when she ran against Humza Yousaf, losing 48-52, but today said she thought the Scottish Government could find a compromise.

She told BBC Radio Scotland: “My position has always been that I think they [HPMAs] are potentially jeopardising coastal communities. It’s important that the Scottish government works with coastal communities going forward.

“Fishing supports so many livelihoods in these communities, so my concern and the concern that has been expressed by some of these communities is that if we cut off that lifeline to the sea then it could jeopardise population recovery.

“If the Scottish government can continue to express their desire to work hand in glove with communities, particularly fishermen, then I think there is a way forward.”

Government sources said Ms McAllan’s call with MPs and MSPs was civil and productive.

Ms McAllan said: “I was pleased that so many elected members from across Scotland accepted my invitation to discuss proposals to introduce Highly Protected Marine Areas. 

“It was a very useful meeting for me, and – I hope – for them too.

“There was widespread agreement that protecting our marine natural environment is vital. 

“It is an unavoidable truth that we are in the midst of a climate and nature crisis and we must be prepared to take action commensurate with the scale of that challenge. 

“However it is also true that, as we tackle the climate emergency, we must do so via a fair and just transition which empowers communities and shares in the benefits of a green economy.  

“It is important to remember the proposals are at a very early stage and no specific sites have been selected – and both I and the First Minister have been clear that we have no intention of imposing HPMAs on communities against their will.

“The recent initial consultation we undertook has received thousands of responses, and we are now carefully analysing these as we consider our next steps.”

Tory MSP Rachael Hamilton added: “We have looked very carefully at responses to the consultation from fishing communities.

“We are nervous about introducing a pilot with the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and spatial squeeze fishermen are facing right now.”

Ms Wishart said: "It’s no exaggeration to say that the proposals for Highly Protected Marine Areas, or HPMAs, have struck fear and anxiety in coastal and island communities.

"The communication from the Scottish Government about its proposals has been poor. Had it engaged meaningfully with communities before now it is possible that some concerns could have been alleviated.

"Addressing the climate emergency and protecting our vulnerable coastal and island communities is not in doubt but should be led by proportional and evidence-based policy, not imposed by a top-down approach.

"It’s time to stop implying fishermen don’t care about our seas. The fishing sector rely on sustainable catches and benefit from healthy seas. Who better understands that our seas are fragile than our fishermen, who want to ensure there’s a future for the next generation?

"We need a holistic approach to our seas to support all the interested stakeholders and sectors, including how the future conservation of our seas should work. The Scottish Government should re-think this policy now."