Highly Protected Marine Areas - policy framework and site selection guidelines: strategic environmental asessment

This initial strategic environmental report assesses the environmental impacts of the Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA) policy.


The Scottish Government and the Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group have agreed to work together over the next five years to build a green economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, respond to the climate emergency and create a fairer country. This commitment includes the designation of at least 10% of Scotland's seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) by 2026. HPMAs will build upon the existing network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and provide a significant increase in the overall level of protection afforded to Scotland's seas.

HPMAs are proposed to be defined as designated areas of the sea that are strictly protected to allow the marine ecosystems within to recover and thrive. These areas safeguard all of their marine life for the benefit of the planet and current and future generations; providing opportunities for carefully managed enjoyment and appreciation.

The first phase of a programme of work to deliver on the Scottish Government's commitment involves developing a Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines to guide to the subsequent process of selecting, assessing and finally designating HPMAs. Marine Scotland as a directorate of the Scottish Government is now consulting on the draft Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines for HPMAs.

What is Strategic Environmental Assessment?

The Environmental Assessment (Scotland) Act 2005 ("the 2005 Act") requires that certain public plans, programmes and strategies be assessed for their potential effects on the environment. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is the process used to fulfil this requirement, and includes consultation with the public and the Consultation Authorities.

SEA identifies the likely significant environmental impacts of plans and policies and proposed reasonable alternatives to them. SEA also identifies mitigation measures that are required to avoid or minimise any significant adverse effects and highlights opportunities for enhancements of beneficial effects. Taking place at an early stage in the plan or policy preparation process, it ensures that decision-making is informed by relevant environmental information. SEA provides opportunities for the public to consider this information and use it to inform their views on the draft plan or policy.

A screening and scoping exercise on the draft Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines was undertaken by Marine Scotland, in accordance with the requirements of the 2005 Act. Consultation Authorities confirmed the need for an SEA due to the potential for significant environmental effects to occur as a result of the implementation of the Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines. They also provided comment on the proposed scope and methodology of the assessment and consultation period for the Environmental Report. Their views are taken into account in this report which summarises the findings of the SEA.

What are the proposed Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines?

The draft Policy Framework which has been developed by Marine Scotland sets out the aim of HPMAs and how sites are selected, how socio-economic impacts will be considered and mitigated, and how stakeholders will be involved

The draft Site Selection Guidelines for HPMAs which have been jointly developed by NatureScot and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) aim to explore the potential contribution an area could make towards achieving the aims of HPMAs. The process is driven by the presence of specific functions and resources of significance to Scotland's seas and looks to optimise ecological, social and cultural benefits whilst minimising significant impacts where possible.

HPMAs will have strict limits on human activities in place to allow the protection and recovery of marine ecosystems. There will be activities which will not be allowed within HPMAs and activities which will be allowed within HPMAs at non-damaging levels. There are some damaging activities associated with essential/lifeline services which will need to go ahead within HPMAs where absolutely necessary.

How was the Strategic Environmental Assessment undertaken?

The SEA provides a high-level assessment of the potential environmental effects that are likely to result from the implementation of the Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines for HPMAs and consideration of a series of key questions ('SEA objectives'). These SEA objectives reflect the scope of the assessment as well the environmental protection objectives from relevant legislation

The assessment has identified the individual and overall (cumulative) beneficial and adverse effects of the proposals on a number of SEA topics, specifically marine biodiversity, flora and fauna; soil; water; and climatic factors. In order to recognise the interlinkages of these SEA topics, these have been collectively given consideration under the overarching topic 'biodiversity'.

The location of HPMAs have not yet been identified and, therefore, it is only possible to undertake an initial SEA at this stage involving a preliminary consideration of the type of impacts that could arise from the future designation of HPMAs and restriction/limitation placed on activities within HPMAs. Once sites have been selected and are proposed to be taken forward for designation, it will be possible to undertake an updated SEA involving a more detailed site specific assessment of the potential environmental effects.

Social and economic effects, including those on other users of the marine environment, have been assessed by the Socio-economic Impact Assessment (SEIA) which is reported separately. The Sustainability Appraisal (SA), which is also reported separately, considers the potential environmental, economic and social effects of implementing the draft Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines, drawing on information contained in the SEA and SEIA.

Which reasonable alternatives have been assessed?

The SEA has undertaken a high-level preliminary assessment of the potential environmental effects that might arise from reasonable alternatives identified during the development of the Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines for HPMAs. These reasonable alternatives represent a more stringent alternative management option involving the exclusion of a greater number of marine activities from HPMAs, including those that are not considered to be at damaging levels. This is anticipated to result in a maximum level of potential beneficial and adverse environmental effects.

What is the current state of the environment?

Scotland's marine environment supports a diverse complex of different habitats, which in turn support a wide range of marine plants and animals.

Scotland's marine biodiversity is protected by a range of European, UK and Scottish-level designations. Key habitat types include estuaries; lagoons; large shallow inlets and bays; mudflats and sandflats not covered by seawater at low tide; reefs; sandbanks which are slightly covered by seawater all the time; submarine structures made by leaking gases; submerged or partially submerged sea caves; kelp beds; burrowed mud; maerl beds; seagrass; horse mussel beds; flame shell beds and Northern sea fan and sponge communities; offshore subtidal sands and gravels; offshore deep sea muds; subtidal sands and gravels; coral gardens; carbonate mound communities; and deep sea sponge aggregations. Key animal species include cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), seals, seabirds, fish (including sharks, skates and rays), turtles and otters. The current health and condition of a number of habitats and species has been declining. Existing and future pressures on marine biodiversity, flora and fauna are mainly from commercial fishing; non-native invasive species; marine litter; navigational dredging; marine transport; aquaculture; recreation; offshore renewables and climate change.

Scotland has a wide range of geological (rocks, minerals, fossils and structures), geomorphological (landforms and processes) and soil features that make up the marine and coastal landscape. Key protected features include quaternary of Scotland; submarine mass movement; marine geomorphology of the Scottish deep ocean seabed; seabed fluid and gas seep; Cenozoic structures of the Atlantic margin; and marine geomorphology of the Scottish shelf seabed. The condition of these features influence the quality of habitats and in turn the viability and health of both flora and fauna populations.

Scotland's seas are mostly classed as being of high or good ecological status under the Water Framework Directive. There are some poorer quality waters in certain areas. The key pressures to the quality of the water environment are from man-made barriers to fish migration, modifications to physical condition, rural diffuse pollution, waste water discharges and hydroelectricity generation. Water quality in the offshore regions is assessed against several different factors (descriptors) under the UK Marine Strategy Regulations. This includes assessment of the impact of a number of pressures from human activities, including oil and gas, chemical pollution and fishing.

Within Scottish seas multiple habitats are present that can be termed 'Blue Carbon Sinks' due to their ability to convert carbon dioxide to solid carbon in living material and incorporate or store this carbon into biomass. These include kelp forests, seagrass beds, maerl beds and biogenic reefs. Their effectiveness as carbon sinks is highly dependent upon their long-term capacity to store carbon. Climate change has the potential to affect the carbon regulating capacity of marine habitats.

What are the likely significant environmental effects of the proposed Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines?

This SEA has undertaken a high-level assessment of the draft Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines for HPMAs.

The implementation of the Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines will lead to the identification and designation of HPMAs which will remove/avoid certain activities and reduce/limit other activities to non-damaging levels. The key potential environmental effects that are likely to arise from the implementation of the proposals and were assessed are as follows:

  • Potential benefits to marine biodiversity and the marine ecosystem;
  • Potential spillover benefits beyond site boundaries;
  • Potential adverse effects resulting from the displacement of activities from site boundaries into new areas and the intensification of activities in areas where these activities already occur; and
  • Potential adverse effects as a result of the extension of any new cable or pipeline routes that need to avoid transecting HPMAs.

In addition, the designation of the sites will provide developers and marine users with a better understanding and certainty of the specific areas of the marine environment that are considered particularly sensitive and need to be protected. In terms of regulated activities, this may lead to the production of more effective Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) that consider appropriate mitigation where necessary and, therefore, potentially reduce pressures associated with these activities in the vicinity of HPMAs. Alternatively, developers may look to site their projects some distance from the HPMAs which would result in reduced harmful activities and potential environmental benefits within these sites.

The increased protection brought about by the HPMAs will also provide potential future benefits to the marine environment as they will restrict new activities that are prohibited or restricted from becoming established in HPMAs.

Overall, the environmental benefits of increased protection that will result from the designation of HPMAs for the overarching topic 'Biodiversity, Flora and Fauna' are anticipated to be greater than the adverse impacts associated with displacement and longer cable or pipeline routes. These environmental benefits will also contribute to the achievement of the SEA objectives.

What are the cumulative effects of the proposed Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines?

The cumulative beneficial effects associated with the designation of all HPMAs would be additive, as a larger spatial area of marine habitat and associated species would be under a greater level of protection. The designation of HPMAs, together with the wider MPA network and existing and proposed management measures, are likely to further benefit the marine environment as larger areas of habitat will be highly protected within Scottish waters. There may also be cumulative adverse effects on the environment from the displacement of activities resulting from other plans that are currently under assessment in-combination with the designation of HPMAs.

Once locations for proposed HPMAs have been selected, an updated SEA will be undertaken which will include a site specific assessment of the potential environmental effects associated with the proposed sites alone and in-combination with other plans.

How do I respond to the consultation?

Views on the draft Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines and the findings of the SEA are now invited.

Please provide any comments on this environmental assessment in your responses to the consultation questionnaire, including any comments on general issues or cumulative effects.

Following the consultation period, the responses received will be analysed, and the findings from this analysis will be taken into account in the finalisation of the Policy Framework and Site Selection Guidelines.

A Post-Adoption SEA Statement will be prepared, reflecting the findings of the assessment and the views expressed in the consultation, and outlining how the issues raised have been considered.

Copies of the consultation documents and the Environmental Report are available for viewing during office hours at the Scottish Government library at Saughton House, Edinburgh (K Spur, Saughton House, Broomhouse Drive, Edinburgh, EH11 3XD).

Please send your response, with the completed Respondent Information Form, to:

By email to: HPMA@gov.scot or

By post to: HPMA Consultation

Scottish Government

Sea Fisheries and Marine Conservation Division

Area 1-B North

Victoria Quay

Edinburgh EH6 6QQ

On line: Citizen Space

If you have any enquiries please send them to HPMA@gov.scot


Email: HPMA@gov.scot

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