Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) - site selection: draft guidelines

Guidelines describing the proposed process for identifying and selecting Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in Scottish waters. These were drafted by our statutory nature conservation advisors, NatureScot and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

Executive summary

The Scottish Government's vision for the marine environment is for clean, healthy, safe, productive and diverse seas, managed to meet the long-term needs of nature and people. To help achieve this vision, while addressing the twin biodiversity and climate crises, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party have committed to an ambitious marine protection programme, under the Bute House Agreement[1], that will "add to the existing MPA network by designating a world-leading suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) covering at least 10% of our seas".

Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs)

HPMAs are designated areas of the sea that are strictly protected from damaging levels of human activities, allowing marine ecosystems to recover and thrive. These areas will safeguard, and where required recover, all marine life within them for the benefit of current and future generations; providing opportunities for carefully managed enjoyment and appreciation.

To determine how and where HPMAs will be identified and implemented, Marine Scotland[2] has developed an HPMA policy framework, and NatureScot and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) have drafted these complementary HPMA selection guidelines.

HPMA selection guidelines

The guidelines set out a five-stage site selection process, based in all cases around the conservation of marine ecosystems as the priority, and driven by the presence of the following functions and resources of significance to Scotland's seas:

  • Blue carbon[3]
  • Essential fish habitats (including prey species)
  • Strengthening the Scottish MPA network
  • Protection from storms and sea level rise
  • Research and education
  • Enjoyment and appreciation
  • Other important ecosystem services

This list of functions and resources (further details are provided in Annex B) were derived from examples given within the Bute House Agreement and those identified by JNCC and NatureScot. As part of the current consultation, we are seeking stakeholder views on whether additional functions and resources should also inform HPMA identification (under the 'other important ecosystem services' category). The list may be refined on the basis of consultation submissions and 'closed' at the point of publication in 2023 to ensure a clear and objective selection process. This text will also be refined accordingly in the finalised guidelines.

Application of the selection guidelines will explore the potential contribution an area could make towards achieving the following aims:

  • Facilitating ecosystem recovery and enhancement
  • Enhancing the benefits that coastal communities and others derive from our seas
  • Contributing to the mitigation of climate change impacts
  • Supporting ecosystem adaptation and improving resilience

A subsequent network level assessment will evaluate different combinations of locations, prioritising between HPMA search locations making similar potential contributions, to optimise ecological, social and cultural benefits whilst minimising impacts. The assessment will explore the contribution that HPMAs could make to the wider MPA network.

Consideration of potential socio-economics impacts

The designation of HPMAs and the application of these site selection guidelines will take account of socio-economic factors affecting the resilience and viability of marine industries, coastal communities and other stakeholders. As a result, some proposals may be screened out of further consideration during the selection process. Designation by Scottish Ministers will be informed by a Sustainability Appraisal, including assessment of socio-economic impacts.

Stakeholder engagement and third party proposals

NatureScot, JNCC and Marine Scotland will work with stakeholders to apply the guidelines to identify a suite of possible HPMAs for consideration by Scottish Ministers. Stakeholders will have the opportunity to shape policy development, share evidence and expertise, submit proposals (using the third-party submission template included in this document), and comment on proposals as they emerge.

A stakeholder engagement plan will be developed to accompany these guidelines and the HPMA policy framework to set out how stakeholders can get involved. By collaborating with stakeholders, Marine Scotland, NatureScot and JNCC will ensure that there is a shared understanding of the interests driving site identification and the likely implications of HPMA designations.


EEZ – Exclusive Economic Zone

EFH – Essential Fish Habitats

EU – European Union

GIS – Geographic Information System

HPMA(s) – Highly Protected Marine Area(s)

IUCN – International Union for the Conservation of Nature

JNCC – Joint Nature Conservation Committee

MPA(s) – Marine Protected Area(s)

NMPi – National Marine Plan Interactive

PMF(s) – Priority Marine Features(s)

UK – United Kingdom

Key terms

HPMA search location – an area identified as a result of the application of Stages 1 to 5 of the site selection process set out in this document.

HPMA proposal – an HPMA search location that has passed through the site selection stages and the network assessment, and which NatureScot and/or JNCC have formally recommended to Scottish Ministers for designation.

Possible HPMA – an HPMA proposal approved by Scottish Ministers for public consultation.

Enhancement – is applied in relation to those actions that aim to improve the quality, size or geographic distribution of a habitat.

Recovery – used in relation to actions taken to enable a habitat to overcome damage or other disturbance and reach a better state, rather than trying to "turn the clock back". This is seen as a relatively passive process involving removing pressures and allowing the habitat to recover naturally.

Restoration – applicable to projects entailing a high level of intervention, such as those rebuilding a habitat or reintroducing an ecosystem engineering species to assist with enhancing a habitat into a location from which it has been extirpated and where re-establishment could not occur without assistance.


Email: HPMA@gov.scot

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