Highly Protected Marine Areas: policy framework

Sets out our proposed definition and aims of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) and what this could mean for different activities taking place in Scottish waters. Also describes how we will account for socio-economic factors alongside ecological considerations and proposed new legal powers.

1. Introduction

This Policy Framework sets out the Scottish Government commitment to designating a suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), our aims for HPMAs and our proposals for what HPMAs are and what they will mean for different marine activities. It also describes how we will account for socio-economic factors alongside ecological considerations and policy objectives for sustainable industries, net zero targets and existing conservation measures. The commitment to designate at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs by 2026 is set out in the Bute House Agreement.

The policy framework and accompanying site selection guidelines as a whole are intended to apply to both Scottish inshore waters (0-12 nautical miles from the coast) and Scottish offshore waters (beyond 12 nautical miles). The selection and designation of HPMAs in offshore waters is subject to the prior transfer of relevant powers by the UK Government to Scottish Ministers. Sections of this document which set out our proposals in relation to legal powers to designate HPMAs therefore relate only to inshore waters. Some of the marine activities, which take place in Scottish inshore and offshore waters, relate to matters which are currently reserved to the UK Government, i.e. are not in the competence of the Scottish Parliament. The prohibition or management of these reserved activities will be subject to agreement with the UK Government. We will work closely with the UK Government to realise our vision for HPMAs in relation to offshore waters and reserved matters.

Scotland’s seas are some of the most biologically diverse in Europe, supporting thousands of species of plants and animals across a wide variety of habitats. We take our role as custodians of our waters seriously. We are committed to working in collaboration with the users of our seas to ensure a clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse marine and coastal environment that meets the long-term needs of people and nature. This includes managing our seas sustainably to protect their rich biological diversity and to ensure that our marine ecosystems continue to provide economic, social and wider benefits for people, industry and society. Our long-term goal, as set out in our Blue Economy Vision, is that by 2045 Scotland’s shared stewardship of our marine environment supports ecosystem health, improved livelihoods, economic prosperity, social inclusion and wellbeing.

The world faces the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss - twin global crises which require us to work with nature to secure a healthier planet. In Scotland, the Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 showed that a number of marine species were in decline. If we do not address biodiversity loss, there is a risk that the marine environment will not remain resilient enough to provide the resources and benefits we gain from it for the long term.

The 2019 Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment of Biodiversity identified five direct drivers of biodiversity loss globally:

  • changing use of the land and sea
  • direct exploitation of organisms
  • climate change
  • pollution
  • invasive non-native species

The Scottish Government is committed to introducing HPMAs covering at least 10% of inshore and offshore waters by 2026. HPMAs in Scottish waters will allow for the protection and recovery of marine ecosystems, contributing to halting biodiversity loss and aiding our efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. They will build upon our existing network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), representing a significant increase in the overall level of protection afforded to Scotland’s seas.

HPMAs will afford high levels of protection to marine ecosystems by limiting or prohibiting specific human activities that may have negative impacts. Carefully managed recreational activities may still be allowed at non-damaging levels. This will provide the best possible chance of protecting and restoring marine ecosystems so they can continue to provide vital ecosystem services, such as climate regulation and provision of food and support marine industries and the communities that depend upon them. We expect HPMAs to bring some socio-economic benefits through the increased protection and recovery of marine areas. We also expect additional benefits, including for carefully managed tourism and recreational activities, opportunities for research and education, and positive impacts on human health. The introduction of HPMAs will also contribute to achieving our UK and international environmental commitments (Box 1 below). HPMAs are also an important mechanism for delivering the commitment that we set out in our National Strategy for Economic Transformation to rebuild Scotland's natural capital by 2032. Only by protecting and enhancing our marine natural capital, can we secure the long-term economic and wellbeing benefits that we derive from our sea.

Our seas are vital to Scotland’s population and key to our identity. They sustain the livelihoods of thousands of people in communities up and down the country, providing food, energy and a thriving marine tourism industry, among many other benefits. HPMAs will ultimately help to protect the resources we all rely on, ensuring we can continue to benefit from our rich seas for generations to come. Designating HPMAs will impact how we use and interact with our marine environment but making space for nature is critical to address biodiversity loss and needs to occur alongside the growing demand for marine space for human activities.

Box 1 - Meeting our domestic and international commitments

The UK Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 provide a comprehensive framework for the four UK administrations to work together to assess, monitor and take action to achieve or maintain Good Environmental Status (GES) across UK waters. The most recent assessment, published in 2019, found that several elements were not achieving GES, including seabirds, marine mammals, and seabed habitats. The introduction of HPMAs should improve this situation and contribute to achieving GES for these elements.

The proposed vision used in the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy consultation states that by 2045 we will have substantially restored and regenerated biodiversity across our land, freshwater and seas. Our natural environment of plants, animals, insects, aquatic life and other species will be richly diverse, thriving, resilient and adapting to climate change. Everyone will understand the benefits from and importance of biodiversity and will play their role in the stewardship of nature in Scotland for future generations.

The introduction of HPMAs also supports us meeting our international environmental commitments. They will contribute to the strategic objectives set out by the OSPAR Commission for the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic in the OSPAR North-East Atlantic Strategy 2030, which was adopted in October 2021. The vision for this strategy is a clean, healthy and biologically diverse North-East Atlantic Ocean, which is productive, used sustainably and resilient to climate change and ocean acidification.

Following EU Exit, the Scottish Government has committed to maintain or exceed EU environmental standards. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 sets a target of ‘strict protection’ of 10% of the EU’s seas by 2030. Our commitment to introduce comparable high protection to 10% of Scotland’s seas by 2026 exceeds this EU target.

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 global biodiversity framework aims to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030. Designating HPMAs in Scottish waters will make a significant contribution to achieving this aim in Scotland. HPMAs will also contribute toward achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life Below Water, in particular targets 14.2 and 14.5.


Email: HPMA@gov.scot

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