It feels like, since Skippinish’s The Clearances Again protest song, highly protected marine areas are dead in the water – gone like a reef of flame shells under a scallop dredger.

It’s possible to see, all over social media, the way the concept is now being laughed-off as folly and travesty, while Humza Yousaf and Net Zero secretary Màiri McAllan try desperately to rebrand and reshape it as something that is about working with communities.

There should, of course, have been no need for that rebrand. The emphasis should have been on community long before the consultation emerged. But here we are. 

The HPMA saga has been a warning tale around top-down policy, just as Deposit Return has been around disregarding small business voices. It’s also a reminder to all parties who might wish to make big change that it stands little chance of working unless there is enough buy-in and building from the bottom – unless the strategies come, at least in part, from those that live there.

As many have already pointed out, the HPMA policy that was first forged in the Bute agreement isn’t just an SNP-Green policy, is pretty much, at baseline, an every-party policy. Scottish Labour for instance promised to protect 10% of our seas as HPMA and a further 20% as MPA.

One has to wonder if any one of these parties would have created a consultation that was very much better – and I hope they are watching and learning, and that what they are taking from this is that engagement must work harder but that HPMAs are not to be ditched.

I’m not entirely optimistic though – not when I see a tweet by journalist and prospective Scottish Labour candidate for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Torcuil Crichton saying that Labour would put a “red stop” on HPMAs.

READ MORE: ScotGov's HPMA marine plan declared a 'distraction'

READ MORE: The incredible life of Scotland's seabed revealed

It's worth remembering that HPMAs aren’t just a Scottish thing. England has also been creating them. Both countries have been inspired by the 2020 Benyon Review, which advised that HPMAs would have an important role in helping the marine ecosystem recover and that there could be spill-over benefits for marine life in adjacent areas to highly protected areas.

DEFRA’s recent creation of five highly protected marine areas also had its own bumpy ride, which resulted in two of the original seven areas being dropped due to "socioeconomic impacts".

Marine protected areas have worked in various parts of the world, amongst them the community-driven Lamlash Bay No Take Zone. It’s worth checking out marine biologist Caitlin Turner's long Twitter list of examples of marine protected areas that have worked, or dipping into Charles Clover's Rewilding The Sea for a history of the MPA movement. 

It's also inevitable that we will see more everywhere since it’s not just the Scottish Government that has a policy of 30 percent of land and sea protected by 2030, it’s now, following last year's Global Diversity Framework agreement, the whole world.

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With HPMAs, I can’t help wondering if the problem is with the idea itself – that such protection is considered unpalatable, unwarranted or impractical – or the strategies of initial engagement.

I’d like to think it was just the latter, and that if the Scottish Government were to work harder with communities, we might be able to move towards some valuable marine protection, working from the bottom up.

But at the same time, I also think there is a bigger problem we are facing when it comes to both climate change and biodiversity-oriented policy – and this is that the speed of change that scientists are telling us we need to act with is such that it invites top-down policies, bans, restrictions, lines drawn on maps, of the type which are deeply unpalatable to most people.

And also, part of the problem is that we are a small country with many people living here. That might seem a strange thing to say of Scotland, with its wild spaces - and particularly so if you live in remote coastal areas - but we are. We have around 70 people per km2, far less than, say, the United States (around 37 per km2) or Russia (9 per km2).

That means it’s hard to protect nature and not impact on people and their current livelihoods – and also hard to do so whilst also creating energy and food. Hence, it’s likely that while highly protected marine areas are thought to be a highly effective type of protection because of their simplicity, we are going to need to look at something more sophisticated. Rather than ban all aquaculture and fishing from our MPAs, for instance, we may need to consider seaweed farming, or permitting low-impact fishing methods, as some conservation groups advocate.

READ MORE: Life after dredge. Saving our seabeds the Norwegian økosystem way.

But right now it seems like practically everyone, except, perhaps, for Skippinish, is feeling not listened to, from fishing bodies to communities. Even conservation groups like Our Seas and Open Seas, which has long campaigned for a 3-mile limit, are feeling unheard.

What would happen if government did start to listen and if the change came from those that live by and off the sea? What if the groups that were already creating change were properly supported? Would they even agree?

Would there be change, and at the rate needed? 

Perhaps. And perhaps we will also all ditch our cars and voluntarily create low traffic neighbourhoods or open and go to refill bottle shops. 

But the problem is I have my doubts, and these relate to a key problem in green and climate policy. No one wants anything imposed on them - but grassroots by grassroots, community by community, Lamlash Bay by Lamlash Bay, will we create change at anything like the speed necessary?