1. The Bute House Agreement included a commitment that Scottish Ministers would designate at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) by 2026. A public consultation was carried out between December 2022 and April 2023 to seek views on the aims and purpose of HPMAs, how the proposal would be implemented, and its potential impacts.
2. The consultation comprised five draft documents:
- The draft HPMA Policy Framework set out the proposed definition and aims of HPMAs and what this would mean for different activities taking place in Scottish waters.
- The draft Site Selection Guidelines described the proposed process for identifying and selecting (future) sites to designate as HPMAs in Scottish waters.
- The initial Sustainability Appraisal provided an assessment of any cumulative impacts (environmental and socio-economic) of the HPMA policy, based upon the draft policy framework and site selection guidelines.
- A partial Island Communities Impact Assessment (ICIA) screening report completed the first two stages of the statutory ICIA process by identifying issues that merit further exploration through research and engagement with island representatives.
- A partial Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment (BRIA) presented an initial assessment of the potential costs, benefits and risks of introducing HPMAs and their potential impacts on the public, private and third sectors.
3. The consultation contained 19 questions – these were mainly closed (tick-box) questions followed by a space for comments.
About the respondents and responses
4. The analysis was based on 4,502 responses. This comprised 2,458 substantive responses (that is, personalised responses) and 2,044 standard campaign responses (where the respondent simply added their name to text produced by a campaign organiser).
5. Substantive responses were received from 289 organisations and 2,169 individuals. Organisational respondents comprised fishing organisations (53); community organisations (52); environmental organisations (33); organisations in the recreation, tourism and culture sectors (32); aquaculture organisations (30); public sector bodies including regulators and local authorities (21); business / private sector organisations (20); energy providers (12); fish selling and processing organisations (11); shipping organisations, ports and harbours (9); and political groups (7). Responses also came from a small group of other organisation types (9) that did not fit into any of the other categories.
6. Individual respondents often identified themselves as being involved in the fishing or aquaculture sectors – as owners, contractors or employees – or as family members, neighbours or friends of people involved in this sector. Individual respondents also often highlighted their geographical location – with many saying they lived in coastal or island communities and were submitting a response as a ‘concerned member of the community’.
7. The standard campaign responses received in the consultation came from two separate campaigns. There were 2,018 Scottish Environment LINK campaign responses, and 26 responses from a campaign organised in Shetland.
About the analysis and findings
8. The large response to this consultation indicated a high degree of interest in this topic, and a willingness to engage with the Scottish Government. It should be noted, however, that there were widespread criticisms about the consultation process and the accompanying documentation, the consultation questions – which respondents found complex and difficult to understand – and the way that views had been sought on the proposals. These views were expressed mainly by respondents who were opposed to the proposals, but also by those who supported them.
9. The challenges that individuals, in particular, had in answering the questions means that caution should be used in interpreting the findings, especially in relation to the closed (tick-box) questions. For this reason, the analysis of respondents’ comments (made in response to the open questions) is particularly important for understanding people’s views.
Overall balance of opinion on HPMAs
10. All those who submitted a campaign response and the vast majority (more than 95%) of those who submitted a substantive response expressed a clear view either in support of, or against, the introduction of HPMAs as proposed by the Scottish Government. There were two main groups:
- 55% of respondents supported the introduction of HPMAs (note that a large majority of respondents in this group submitted Scottish Environment LINK campaign responses)
- 43% of respondents opposed the introduction of HPMAs (note that almost all the respondents in this group submitted a personalised response to the consultation).
11. The remaining 2% of respondents held neutral views – that is, they did not express clear support for, or opposition to, the introduction of HPMAs.
Policy framework – aims and purpose (Q1)
12. Those who supported HPMAs did so because they saw a need to take urgent action to protect the marine environment, and they believed that HPMAs would be effective in improving marine biodiversity. However, this group also expressed a range of caveats – often related to the potential for adverse impacts on local communities.
13. Those who opposed HPMAs gave a range of reasons for their views, including (among others): (i) the lack of a scientific basis for establishing HPMAs, (ii) the arbitrary and disproportionate nature of the proposed policy, and the 10% target in particular, and (iii) the potential for serious socio-economic impacts on island and coastal communities.
14. Among organisations, levels of support for the aims and purpose of HPMAs were highest among environmental organisations and organisations in the recreation, tourism and culture sectors. Levels of opposition were highest among fishing organisations; fish selling and processing organisations; community groups; and aquaculture organisations.
Policy framework – management of activities (Q2–Q7)
15. Six questions sought views on the proposals set out in the draft policy framework for managing a range of different activities in HPMAs, and proposals for new legal powers in relation to HPMAs. Note that respondents repeatedly said that they found these questions difficult to understand.
16. The consultation asked respondents for their views on the effectiveness of proposed approaches to managing 16 specific activities within HPMAs. Levels of support were highest in relation to the proposed approach to managing ‘shipping and ferries’ and lowest in relation to the approach to managing ‘recreational fishing of any kind’. Levels of opposition were highest in relation to the proposed approach to managing ‘commercial fishing of any kind’ and lowest in relation to the approach to managing ‘carbon capture, utilisation and storage’.
17. There was limited support for additional powers to be granted in relation to HPMAs. Respondents were least supportive of powers to prohibit activities from the point of designation – 1 in 5 respondents supported this. Support was highest for powers to suspend restrictions in the event of a force majeure – 2 in 5 respondents supported this. In every case, organisations were more likely to support the granting of additional powers than individuals. Environmental organisations were the most likely to support the granting of additional powers, whilst fishing groups or organisations, and business / private sector organisations were most likely to oppose this.
Site selection (Q8–Q11)
18. The draft site selection guidelines stated that HPMA site identification will be based on ‘functions and resources of significance to Scotland’s seas’. Seven specific functions and resources were proposed: (i) blue carbon, (ii) essential fish habitats, (iii) strengthening the Scottish MPA network, (iv) protection from storms and sea level rise, (v) research and education, (iv) enjoyment and appreciation, and (vii) other important ecosystem services. The consultation sought views on these.
19. Respondents who supported the introduction of HPMAs were most likely to highlight ‘blue carbon’, ‘essential fish habitats’ and ‘other ecosystem services’ as being key objectives for marine conservation. Comments from respondents who were opposed to the introduction of HPMAs often focused on issues relating to the definitions used and the lack of evidence available on individual functions and resources. Some queried or were unclear about the relevance of the individual functions and resources for marine conservation or site selection.
20. The guidelines stated that the site selection process will be underpinned by four general principles: (i) use of robust evidence base, (ii) HPMA scale and the use of functional ecosystem units, (iii) ensuring added value, and (iv) delivering ecosystem recovery. Support among respondents was highest for ‘use of robust evidence base’.
21. A five-stage site selection process was proposed involving: (i) identification of possible HPMA sites based on functions and resources of significance to Scotland’s seas, (ii) consideration of the contribution of potential sites to the overarching aims of HPMAs, (iii) defining the appropriate scale of the proposed site, (iv) reviewing the current use of the site and setting out management arrangements for existing activities, and (v) assessing the wider potential benefits of designating the site as an HPMA. One in six respondents said they supported the five-stage process, although views varied significantly among different respondent types and organisation types. Environmental organisations expressed the greatest support, while fishing-related organisations were almost unanimously opposed.
22. In relation to all the questions about the site selection guidelines, recurring themes – both among those who supported and those who opposed HPMAs – related to the importance of robust evidence, concerns about the timescales for designating HPMAs, the importance of community and stakeholder engagement, and the need to take account of socio-economic as well as environmental factors.
23. Support for the accuracy and fairness of the various impact assessments undertaken in relation to the introduction of HPMAs ranged from 9% (for the partial Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment) to 16% (for the partial Island Communities Impact Assessment screening report).
24. Some respondents were content with the impact assessments that had been presented but recognised that there was further work to be done. However, a large majority of respondents – including individuals, and organisations of all kinds – were critical of these impact assessments.
25. Criticisms of the individual impacts assessments were that they had omitted or given inadequate coverage to important issues; were vague or lacking in detail; underestimated the negative impacts of HPMAs; had not been developed in consultation with coastal and island communities; and were not relevant, given that individual sites had not yet been selected.
26. Respondents identified a wide range of possible impacts of HPMAs, including issues related to employment, prosperity, depopulation, infrastructure, mental health and wellbeing, cultural heritage and communities’ relationship with the seas, and community cohesion. These impacts were often described as potentially ‘devastating’.
Other comments and alternative approaches (Q19)
27. Respondents often suggested additional, complementary and / or alternative approaches to the conservation of Scotland’s seas. Suggestions were made both by those who opposed HPMAs, and by those who supported HPMAs.
28. Both groups repeatedly called for a strategic, evidence-based approach to conserving and protecting Scotland’s seas. They suggested this would be best delivered through a co-ordinated, comprehensive and coherent spatial marine management plan / framework.
29. Both groups emphasised the importance of: (i) collaboration and partnership working with local communities and stakeholders in developing ‘bottom up’ approaches to marine and environmental management, (ii) building on the local knowledge and values of people who live by and work on the sea, and respecting local sustainable fishing practices, and (iii) greater consideration of socio-economic impacts alongside environmental impacts.
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