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).

Annex B - Functions and resources of significance to Scotland's seas

Further information on the functions and resources of significance to Scotland's seas that will underpin HPMA identification in Scotland's seas.

Blue Carbon

  • Spatial management measures to support climate mitigation are best suited to blue carbon ecosystems. In Scotland, this includes carbon stored in living marine and coastal habitats (biological blue carbon - including, but not limited to, seagrasses, maerl beds and biogenic habitats that can also play an important role in trapping organic carbon that might otherwise be resuspended and remineralised) and carbon stored in seafloor and sea-loch sediments (geological blue carbon).
  • The focus in relation to HPMAs is likely to be on areas supporting the largest carbon stores with consideration of their vulnerability (how biodegradable or 'labile' they are) and associated sequestration rates. This will include organic carbon stores present in muddy sea-loch and seafloor sediments as well as ensuring adequate protection for biological blue carbon habitats (examples of habitats not covered by existing measures, or through the additional protection of existing MPAs where this adds value and prevents damage to important carbon-sequestering capabilities).
  • The Scottish Blue Carbon Forum will provide scientific expertise to support the HPMA identification.

Essential Fish Habitats (EFH)

  • The Bute House Agreement refers to critical fish habitat which is analogous to the more regularly used Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) terminology adopted within these guidelines. EFH is often broadly defined as 'those waters and substrata necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity'. From a fisheries management perspective, EFH can include 'those habitats which are essential to the ecological and biological requirements for critical life history stages of exploited fish species', where protection may lead to an improvement of stock status and sustainability.
  • HPMAs in Scotland will consider the link between critical habitats, relevant fish (and shellfish) life stages and the services that are provided (nursery, feeding, refugia, spawning etc.). Areas will be considered under this criteria on the basis of the benefits that removal of damaging activities would have towards provision of that service, and its contribution towards sustainable and healthy fish populations through improved recruitment, growth, survivorship or successful reproduction.
  • HPMA identification may reflect established concepts, including affording protection to specific 'single' habitats that are well understood in relation to their role as fish habitats (e.g. reef, kelp, maerl, seagrass etc.).
  • Larger scale areas encompassing a mosaic of habitats (which may include elements of topographic complexity) may also be considered where these collectively confer EFH benefits and provide suitable habitat for multiple species, life stages or functions (e.g. refuge and feeding). Fjordic sea lochs and seamounts represent examples of landscape scale EFH provision.
  • The existing MPA network provides protection to many habitats which are typically considered essential fish habitat. In some cases, it may be appropriate to provide additional protection to these features, particularly where this could enhance habitat quality or extent. Otherwise, selection will contribute by providing protection to key habitats outside the existing MPA network allowing for an improvement in the services provided by a diverse range of habitats.
  • Addressing seafood security concerns (provisioning services) has a dependency on the quality of the environment (supporting services), where actions for food security and marine biodiversity are intrinsically linked. HPMAs will build on the existing MPA network and play an essential role in supporting the climate adaptation of fisheries and the human communities that depend on them for food or income.
  • Essential habitats for marine mammals and birds are incorporated under 'Strengthening the Scottish MPA network' below.
  • Engagement with industry will be important for improving understanding around the distribution of EFH.

Strengthening the Scottish MPA network

  • HPMAs will complement existing MPAs, supporting and strengthening the network by providing the requisite additional environmental protections over and beyond existing mechanisms. This is expected to include the identification of HPMAs outside the existing MPA network.
  • Enhancing ecological connectivity, i.e., the movement of mobile species and/or the transport of some species' offspring from place to place is one way that HPMAs will add value. Larval exchange differs markedly among different species, however the exchange of eggs, larvae and other propagules (e.g. seeds and spores) is critical for network functioning. This determines the degree to which individual protected areas can act as a source of biodiversity to Scottish waters more generally, including for recruitment to adjacent fisheries and to enhance recovery.
  • HPMAs may enhance connectivity by protecting areas known to be important for species movements and supporting functions and processes (e.g. areas of high primary productivity etc.), or through being suitably spaced within and around the existing network - serving as 'stepping stones' that help species adapt to climate-induced shifts in their home ranges. Dispersal distances and spatial movement information will influence the spacing of HPMAs.
  • Where HPMAs can add value to existing conservation measures, consideration will be made to vulnerable life history stages of mobile species and the habitats that support them, e.g., when species aggregate for mating, spawning or at migration bottlenecks (see also Essential Fish Habitats above).
  • To promote recovery of marine ecosystems and improve resilience, including to climate change, it is essential to consider the range of ecological diversity present in Scottish waters. Selection of HPMAs will therefore seek to encompass all major habitat types, in the context of the existing network, to ensure that strict protection is afforded to a high proportion of overall biological diversity. Where required, proposals will be developed to ensure a balanced representation of the ecology of Scotland's seas and their geographical spread from the coast to the deep sea.
  • HPMA identification will encompass degraded and non-degraded habitats to facilitate ecosystem recovery. This will include the development of proposals specifically targeting the recovery of PMFs as stipulated in the Bute House Agreement.
  • In the context of the draft HPMA selection guidelines, all existing MPAs and other effective area-based measures established for nature conservation purposes, are considered to support functions and resources of significance to Scotland's seas.

Protection from storms and sea level rise

  • Nearshore ecosystems can protect coastal communities, infrastructure, and property from storms, wave surge and the increased flooding and erosion that accompany sea level rise.
  • Shallow subtidal reefs, kelp beds, sediment banks and seagrass beds, for example, can provide broad areas that stabilise sediments, attenuate wave energy and slow a rise in floodwater before it reaches built structures.
  • Natural systems can be more effective than man-made alternatives where they are able to accommodate a rise in level (accreting more sediment over time), and are often more cost-effective than traditional built infrastructure solutions.
  • Work with Dynamic Coast, will explore the potential for HPMAs to facilitate nature-based protection of vulnerable coastal infrastructure around Scotland.

Research and education

  • HPMAs offer research and education opportunities above those associated with many existing MPAs. They allow for people to experience, observe and study marine fauna and flora that are undisturbed by human activities. HPMAs have an important role to play in helping children and students learn how fish and other marine animals find food, hide from predators, grow, reproduce, migrate or defend their territories. As people learn and share their knowledge with their families and the wider community, they play a significant role in developing community understanding and demand for sustainable management and the importance of protecting their marine environments. This fosters stewardship, increases awareness and encourages the responsible use of resources.
  • HPMAs have the potential to provide broad benefits, with sites serving as reference areas in long-term research, including informing assessments of management effectiveness. Research may involve the understanding of marine ecosystems and ecosystem services, developing and evaluating techniques for sustainable management and exploring options for new forms of use. The slow and incremental changes caused by human activities and natural events, such as the effects of a gradually changing climate, can be difficult to measure. Without such reference sites the value of comparisons is limited. HPMAs provide a crucial means for establishing points of reference to assess human and other impacts on adjacent marine environments.
  • Many coastal and nearshore ecosystems are highly degraded and enabling their recovery towards more natural states is likely to take place over timescales of decades. Even after mitigation or removal of the main pressures, it can be difficult to determine how to re-establish ecosystems, be sure what they should now contain, and how they are likely to function in a recovered form. Where environmental conditions have changed, it may not be possible for ecosystems to fully recover to their former states.
  • Shallow inshore and intertidal areas are the focus of attempts to restore original ecosystem services, such as flood and storm protection, by rebuilding a habitat or reintroducing an ecosystem engineering species. These restoration efforts may be supported by HPMA protection in the subtidal zone and will also need information from protected, non-degraded areas to provide guidance on approaches and priorities for restoration.

Enjoyment and appreciation

  • Leisure, recreation and tourism at non-damaging levels may offer economic opportunities in HPMAs. This is likely to be the most significant economic driver associated with these protected areas. There is evidence that implementing strict protection can encourage tourism enterprises to establish and expand, while ensuring activities remain at non-damaging levels. HPMAs can provide additional recreational benefits compared with other types of MPA due to the higher level of protection of habitats and species, making them potential hotspots of biodiversity.
  • Aesthetic, cultural and spiritual values are also associated with marine environments. The high level of protection afforded by HPMAs, allowing for the recovery of marine ecosystems, could increase the appreciation and enjoyment of the beauty of such environments, and could strengthen the positive emotional responses connected with sites of cultural and religious significance.
  • Overall, inshore sites are generally more accessible and frequently visited than offshore sites. However, HPMAs in the offshore could offer an opportunity for the general public to gain a greater understanding of the unique range of habitats and species around the wider seas of Scotland, in the knowledge that these will be protected for future generations.

Other important ecosystem services

  • Ecosystem services are the benefits that people derive from ecosystems. Scotland's seas provide other important cultural, supporting and maintaining ecosystem services that could inform the identification of HPMAs. The list of functions and resources of significance to Scotland's seas provided above is not considered exhaustive.

An example of an additional service which is closely linked to 'Enjoyment and appreciation' is Human health and wellbeing. Studies have demonstrated that exposure to coastal environments can play a significant role in boosting well-being, mental and physical health, due to the 'therapeutic and restorative effects' marine and coastal landscapes have. These studies highlight the important role of marine conservation, with visits to areas with a protected status and those with higher levels of biodiversity associated with higher levels of calmness, relaxation and revitalisation, compared to locations without this status.


Email: HPMA@gov.scot

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