HUMZA Yousaf has refused to explain how coastal and island communities opposed to  new zones banning fishing off 10 per cent of Scotland can object to them.

The First Minister has promised that Highly Protected Marine Arears (HPMAs) will not be imposed on any communities which are “vehemently opposed” to the idea.

However, put on the spot at FMQs, he refused to say how communities would be defined, how they would be consulted, or how vehement opposition had to be to secure a veto.

He said it would be “completely wrong” to pre-empt the outcome of a recent consultation on HMPAs, which provoked a furious backlash and around 4,000 responses.

Key to the SNP-Green joint government deal, HPMAs would see strict limits on human activity, including fishing, aquaculture and tourism in at least 10% of Scotland’s waters.

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

Three former SNP ministers representing rural areas - Alasdair Allan, Fergus Ewing and Kate Forbes - last night refused to back the HMPA plan in a Tory-led debate.

Calling for HPMAs to be scrapped, Douglas Ross accused Mr Yousaf of “losing his grip on his party”, something the First Minister later denied in a briefing to the media.

READ MORE: Raging former SNP minister rips up HPMA plan in Holyrood chamber

Warning the plans would “devastate” rural areas, Mr Ross asked the FM: “Can he define what he means in this case by community and what level of opposition would be considered ‘vehemently opposed?'”

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Mr Yousaf said: “What we have made absolutely clear is that this Government will not impose HPMAs on any community that vehemently opposes them.

“We have done the consultation and there has been a significant response. 

“It is only right that we now analyse those responses. 

“With regard to what consent mechanism we will use and how we will define 'community' in terms of opposition or consent, that is something on which we will engage directly with the community.

"That is why we have done a consultation at early inception stage. 

“It would be completely wrong of us to pre-empt a decision about what consent mechanism we will end up putting in place or to set the parameters here today, because, of course, that would risk excluding some voices that should be heard.”

He said the Scottish Government would "not apologise" for protecting the seas to help tackle "the twin crises of the climate emergency and the loss of our biodiversity”.

Mr Ross quoted SNP MSP Karen Adam, who on Tuesday said clarity was needed “on how those communities will be defined and how we will gauge their vehement opposition”.

He went on: “I am saying that and even the SNP members are saying it. However, it is already crystal clear that those communities are vehemently opposed to the plans.  

“Why is the First Minister pressing ahead with a policy that will devastate coastal, rural and fishing communities?”

Mr Yousaf said the Tory manifesto had also backed the piloting of HPMAs, and accused Mr Ross of “flip-flopping all over the place on any issue of the day”.

Mocking the half-hearted support for Mr Yousaf from his backbenches, Mr Ross said the  SNP leader should be worried about the rebellious mood within his party.

"It took Nicola Sturgeon eight years to have her first major rebellion within the SNP ranks; it has taken Humza Yousaf less than eight weeks to achieve the same,” he said. 

“He is clearly losing his grip on his party because he insists on pursuing these extreme policies, which are opposed by the very communities he wants to impose them on.

Mr Yousaf insisted HPMAs would not be imposed on vehemently opposed communities, and said Mr Ross had no grip on his party, with two Tory MSPs itching to replace him.

“Why does Jamie Greene or Liam Kerr not just stand up and put Douglas Ross out of his misery?” he said.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf may release bullying probe findings into Fergus Ewing

Speaking to the media later, Mr Yousaf denied he was losing control of the party.

He also downplayed a new poll putting Labour ahead of the SNP on the Holyrood regional list vote for the first time since the Nationalists came to power.

Redfield & Wilton Strategies put Labour on 27 per cent and the SNP on 25%, although the SNP remained ahead on the constituency vote (36% to 32%), and on Westminster voting intention (35% to 32%). 

Asked about the poll, Mr Yousaf said: “Wall-to-wall negative coverage of the SNP for many, many weeks and we’re still gaining in many areas in terms of popular support. 

“Westminster election polling, for example, or the constituency polling [for Holyrood].

“I’m very confident in our prospectus and building our support.”