Monitoring the socio-economic impacts of Marine Protected Areas: report

This report, on the socio-economic impacts of MPAs, found that there had been localised positive and negative impacts on coastal communities and industries, linked to MPA management measures.

Executive Summary

This report provides an assessment of evidence on the socio-economic impacts of Scotland's Marine Protected Areas (MPA) since management measures were introduced in 2016.

In 2019 Marine Scotland began gathering evidence for the second review of socio-economic impacts of Marine Protected Areas on a range of sectors, stakeholders and communities. These included the fishing sector, seafood processing, aquaculture and tourism. A combination of quantitative (analysis of fishing activity and employment data) and qualitative (in-depth stakeholder interviews) methods were used to identify changes in marine industries and communities, to understand the causes of these changes, and to determine whether these changes could be attributed to MPA management measures. Four case studies were conducted, based around five MPAs (South Arran MPA, Loch Sunart to the Sound of Jura MPA, Wester Ross MPA, Wyre and Rousay Sounds MPA and Sanday SAC) to illustrate the impact of MPAs in specific geographic areas.

This review found that there had been localised positive and negative impacts on coastal communities and industries, associated with MPA management measures. Where impacts were felt, this was often due to a combination of factors, one of which was MPAs.

Socio-economic impacts on the fishing industry

The new measures adopted since 2016 as part of Scotland's MPA process affect fishing activity in a number of MPA sites and could have knock on effects for wider seafood industries as well as other marine users. The commercial fisheries sector is most likely to be directly impacted by MPA management measures, as a number of restrictions are placed on the type of vessel and gear that can be deployed within an MPA boundary.

Landings data showed that, in some areas, there were changes in landings after MPA management measures were introduced. Impacts were more apparent at the local level, and both positive and negative impacts were felt in different parts of the fishing industry. ICES rectangle analysis indicated decreases in trawled Nephrops landings and dredged scallops in some rectangles containing MPAs, while increases in creeled Nephrops and hand-dived scallops were also evident.

Analysis of landings from trawl vessels which fished within MPA boundaries before management measures were introduced, suggested catch reductions of 25-35% from rectangles containing MPAs, with vessels found to compensate for this by fishing more heavily in other rectangles, without MPA designations. Total landings for these vessels remained the same, or higher, apart from those which had been particularly heavy users of the fishing grounds within MPAs, whose total landings reduced by approximately 12% on average. The same analysis for dredge vessels found that landings within MPAs rectangles, and in non-MPA rectangles declined from 2013-2018, with a steeper decline post 2016. This suggests that other factors are affecting dredged scallop landings on the west coast, but that MPAs may be a contributing factor.

These vessels accounted for 1-12% of the total number of vessels registered in port districts near MPAs, depending on how heavily they used the MPA, so were a relatively small proportion of all fishers operating in the area.

Analysis of employment data for port districts near MPAs showed a slight increase in total employment on static gear vessels, and a decrease on trawl and dredge vessels on the west coast of Scotland. This trend was clearest and most pronounced in a few areas, where the magnitude of the change was greater. Some areas showed no trends that could be identified as consistent with MPA management measures. These changes could reflect a shift from mobile to static gear in some areas due to MPA management measures which restrict the use of mobile gear.

Interview data supported the findings of the landings while employment data provided further explanation of the results. Just over a quarter of fishers interviewed reported reduced landings, as did two thirds of seafood processors. This was attributed to reduced access to the sheltered fishing grounds within MPA boundaries. In response, fishers reported changing their practices in several ways to adapt to the MPA measures. Many were fishing in other grounds, some had bought bigger boats to enable them to travel further and withstand harsher weather, some had diversified to creel fishing and a few had downgraded to smaller boats or sold up. Through their adaptations, most fishers have managed to tolerate the challenges and continued to operate viable businesses, although it should be noted that this may have been at some personal cost and inconvenience.

Static gear fishers reported having greater access to the grounds within MPAs, and felt they were more secure fishing there without the risk of gear conflict. Some had expanded their businesses and taken on more crew.

Socio-economic impacts on other key industries

Potential impacts of MPA management measures on other marine industries, namely seafood processing, aquaculture and tourism were also explored. Seafood processors tended to be affected in similar ways to fishers and were found to have adapted in similar ways. Those who had been affected were particularly concerned about their ability to retain staff.

The main impacts described by those from aquaculture were associated with the increased complexity of planning applications, which were said to be more costly and time consuming. Respondents also described delays in receiving responses on the outcome of their planning applications, which were said to delay developments and result in financial losses.

In relation to tourism, respondents felt that the MPAs had had a positive impact, as they provide an additional tourist attraction for areas nearby. Some businesses reported using the MPA designations as part of their unique selling point (USP) or their promotional material. Respondents also highlighted the importance of the natural environment for marine tourism in general. They felt that the added environmental protection afforded by MPA measures would enhance marine tourism opportunities in the future, regardless of whether those businesses used the MPA directly. An example of this is recreational fishing, which respondents hoped would expand as habitats and stocks recovered. Several respondents felt that more effort could have been made to promote and celebrate the MPAs among the general public. They acknowledged that there was still a lack of awareness about MPAs in some areas.

Wider Economic and Social Impacts on local areas

Several organisations and community groups have developed or galvanised around the MPAs. These groups were found to have organised a large array of activities and events, raising awareness and educating the public about marine conservation and the rich diversity of their local inshore waters. Some indicated that they had also made links with relevant research institutions and collaborated on numerous research projects to gather data and improve understanding of the environmental impacts of MPAs. Some of these research projects also involved citizen science, further engaging the public with marine issues.

Respondents observed improvements in the marine environment, which they attributed to MPAs. Many stated that this was the most important positive impact of the MPAs and described feelings of hope and inspiration at the thought of the improvements that were possible and what that could mean for their local area.

According to the Social Attitudes Survey,[1] and the short structured interviews, the general public tended to be in support of MPAs, though were often unsure what they were.

Wider Context

Although this research focused on the socio-economic impacts of MPA management measures, it was common for respondents to discuss other related topics which helped to explain, highlight or contextualise the more direct impacts. Some of the areas where impacts were visible were particularly rural and remote, increasing the vulnerability of the communities and industries that operate there. Many fishers described the shortage of crew as being a key challenge and in some cases this was the biggest challenge they faced. In addition, rural areas can suffer from depopulation, which some respondents linked to the shortage of crew.

Respondents from fishing and related industries highlighted that MPA management measures were not the only thing affecting their ability to maintain their businesses. Other challenges were also highlighted, such as practical difficulties in getting access to markets, the limitations caused by the quota system, fluctuating seafood and fuel prices, the cumulative impacts from other industries, and climate change. The impacts of these issues interact and, in some cases, may compound the impacts of MPA management measures.

Insights from the Case Studies

The case studies focused on MPA impacts in four specific areas and helped to illustrate how the MPA management measures, and their effect on marine industries and communities, can combine with other factors, leading to significant impacts. While the findings of this study are heavily influenced through the local context, they provide useful insight for other locations and MPAs.

Respondents from communities near the South Arran MPA (Campbeltown, Tarbert, and Carradale) described the difficulties of running a business in a rural and remote area. Depopulation in this area has exacerbated the struggle to find crew, high transport costs make supplies more expensive and industries linked to fishing were described as highly interdependent and vulnerable as a result. Additional stresses, such as restricted access to fishing grounds as a result of the MPA measures can compound existing pressures.

On the other hand, respondents from communities near the Wyre and Rousay Sounds MPA and Sanday SAC in Orkney (Kirkwall and Stromness) did not describe significant impacts due to the MPAs. There are several industries operating in the waters around Orkney and the challenge here is navigating the impacts these might have on each other. While these industries provide employment, and so reduce the reliance on fishing, there are also concerns that some of them are taking potential crew members away from commercial fishing. These issues were of greater concern among respondents than the impacts of the MPAs.


This research has drawn on a wide range of sources of quantitative and qualitative evidence. Perhaps most importantly the project has included detailed input from interviews with individuals from a range of impacted industries in different localities. It is challenging to draw clear conclusions on the extent of impacts that MPAs have had; however, using a combination of methods and data sources enables us to have confidence in our findings. There is certainly evidence that MPAs have made fishing more challenging in some areas with additional knock on impacts on associated industries. Some businesses have had to adapt to survive. There is also evidence of positive environmental and community impacts, particularly with regard to public environmental awareness, research and education. The clearest message from the research, however, is that MPAs are one of the many challenges that face marine industries and their communities at this time. Where impacts were felt, this was often due to a combination of factors, one of which was MPAs. Whilst in some cases MPAs may have a minimal direct impact, when evaluated in combination with other existing challenges, they can exert a greater, cumulative strain than might be immediately apparent.

These findings highlight the importance of taking a holistic approach, which takes account of the wider context when carrying out socio-economic impact monitoring.

It is important to note that this research was carried out in 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been serious consequences for coastal communities and industries as a result of the pandemic. These are likely to have exacerbated many of the struggles described in this report.

We recommend continued monitoring of the impacts of MPA management measures, as the marine environment and the industries that depend upon it continue to change and develop.

The inclusion of qualitative techniques in monitoring and impact assessment, as well as continued engagement with stakeholders are also recommended.



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