Scottish Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) consultation: Scottish Government response

Our response to the public consultation on the proposal to designate 10% of Scottish seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) by 2026.

2 Key Themes and Learning

While the proposals to introduce HPMAs as consulted on will not be taken forward, the effort and volume of responses received produced key themes which will be used as learning points for future policy development.

The key themes are set out in this section divided into subthemes.

2.1 The Proposal

2.1.1 Support for Protecting Marine Environment

Respondents, including those opposed to HPMAs as consulted on, commonly supported the need to protect and conserve our marine environment with many respondents suggesting alternative approaches.

2.1.2 Community Led Collaboration and Partnership

The importance of stakeholder and community input in developing policies and selecting and managing sites was another area of agreement emphasised across responses. Collaboration, partnership working and building on the knowledge and values of local people was emphasised by both opposed and supporting respondents.

2.1.3 Building on Existing Knowledge

Respondents also commonly highlighted concerns around taking a blanket approach to marine protection, and instead suggested building on the local knowledge and values of people who live by and work on the sea, and respect local sustainable fishing practices.

2.1.4 10% Target

Many respondents opposed to the policy proposals questioned the decision to include the 10% target, and often worried that this could be disproportionately concentrated in the inshore area. Those who supported this target recognised the alignment with international commitments.

2.1.5 Timescale

Respondents who opposed the policy proposals found the 2026 timeline for delivery to be unrealistic, especially when considering the need to engage with local communities and to collect robust scientific evidence.

2.1.6 Approach to stakeholder engagement

Some respondents who were opposed said there had been inadequate engagement with key stakeholders in the early stages of developing the proposals, particularly from fishing, aquaculture and related industries, local authorities, and local communities.

Respondents of all types argued for consideration of community impacts at an early stage in site identification, and emphasised the need for community engagement and input throughout the process.

Scottish Government Comment on Section 2.1 (The Proposal)

The Scottish Government recognises that overall, respondents support the need to protect and conserve our marine environment.

The Scottish Government appreciates the time and thought given by respondents to consider alternative approaches, and these (found in Annex A) will provide an important starting point for the future of enhanced marine protection. Recognising the feedback we received through the consultation, our key considerations for future policy development are:

  • We are committed to working with communities who wish to take a bottom-up approach to enhancing marine protection in their local area;
  • Our future approach to developing policy associated with enhanced marine protection will be based on establishing an early dialogue with local communities;
  • We will ensure any future proposals that are brought forward are supported by a robust evidence base and consider collaboratively how to embed environmental and precautionary principles;
  • We will work collectively to enhance protection of our marine environment supporting the Scottish Government’s National Just Transition Outcomes found in Box X at Just Transition - A Fairer, Greener Scotland: Scottish Government response.

The Scottish Government has existing programmes to protect and enhance the marine environment including through implementation of fisheries management measures for the existing Marine Protected Area network and for our most vulnerable Priority Marine Features (PMFs) where they are not already in place. The policy to introduce Highly Protected Marine Areas in 10% of Scotland’s Seas by 2026, as consulted on, will not be continued.

We will instead continue to work to enhance marine protection in line with our draft Biodiversity Strategy ambition for Scotland to be nature-positive by 2030 and will recognise the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 targets over the same timescale. We will seek to work collaboratively with communities, industry and conservation organisations, establishing a dialogue to help them shape the development of policies that deliver these targets through enhanced marine protection.

Communities are central to how we shape the future of Scotland’s seas, and we are committed to working with those wishing to pursue community-led marine protection in their local area.

Stakeholders who met with Scottish Government officials during policy development are listed in section 1.2 of this report.

The stakeholder engagement plan, which was published alongside the consultation, set out how stakeholders were intended to be involved throughout the processes of identifying and designating HPMAs. However, we recognise that many communities and groups felt that they were not engaged prior to the consultation launch. We have listened to these concerns and therefore, going forward, we will engage early and allow for more space to hear from island and coastal communities, marine industries and others with an interest in protecting Scotland’s seas.

2.2 Impacts of the Proposal

2.2.1 Impacts on Islands and Coastal Communities (Including Socio-Economic Impacts)

Whilst some respondents identified benefits HPMAs could provide, the majority of those who opposed the introduction of HPMAs believed that the policy would have unacceptable social and economic impacts for island and coastal communities. When asked specifically for views on the partial Island Communities Impact Assessment (ICIA) Screening document, 72% of those who responded expressed opposition.

There were some key areas regarding impacts, for which most respondents shared consensus on.

These included:

  • communities should be closely involved in the process of identifying, developing and managing marine conservation measures;
  • there needs to be an appropriate balance struck between conservation needs and the needs of local communities;
  • there needs to be a just transition.

Amongst the respondents opposing HPMAs, many suggested that socio-economic wellbeing should be a key indicator in measuring the success of any conservation initiative in Scottish seas.

These respondents thought the Socio-Economic Impact Assessment had failed to understand the magnitude of the potential adverse impacts, particularly on island and coastal communities.

Many also expressed the view that the imposition of a blanket ban on fishing in HPMAs would disproportionately impact the fishing sector and island and coastal communities. This was judged by many to be unnecessarily restrictive and likely to result in a significant loss of local, fishing related businesses and livelihoods with the potential knock-on effect of people unwillingly leaving their homes and communities to seek employment elsewhere.

Scottish Government Comment

The concern over potential disproportionate socio-economic impacts and the lack of sufficient time to assess and address these in consultation with marine users and island and coastal communities, was a key factor in the decision by the Scottish Government, that the policy as proposed would not be continued.

The Scottish Government will work collaboratively with relevant stakeholders and island and coastal communities, to identify views on how we should work together to continue to enhance marine protection.

As we take forward the work necessary to enhance marine protection, we will ensure it is done so in line with just transition principles.

2.2.2 Coherence with Marine Planning for Scotland

A number of respondents suggested alternative approaches to the conservation and protection of Scotland’s seas, based on an evidence-based spatial marine management plan / framework. Respondents also said that such a plan or framework should take account of the values and needs (social and economic) of island and coastal communities. Commercial fisheries management measures and their enforcement were regularly raised in this context.

Scottish Government Comment

The Scottish Government remains committed to an evidence-based approach. Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 reports the evidence for the status of our seas. This evidence base underpins our Marine Nature Conservation Strategy, which sets out an approach that is delivered through a combination of spatial protections and wider seas measures. We will continue to use evidence to prioritise the protection of our seas from damaging pressures.

The Scottish Government’s approach to marine planning is informed by findings from statutory reviews to the National Marine Plan in 2018 and 2021, as well as stakeholder feedback. This has highlighted the need to update the National Marine Plan, creating a second National Marine Plan (NMP2) to help tackle the twin climate and biodiversity crises and support our net zero ambition. The new NMP2 will adopt a blue economy approach. It will help to get the right framework in place to address the increasing competition for marine space and resources, and that acknowledges the variety of demands and needs for and from the marine environment.

Through marine planning, we will work with all sectors to manage the increased competition for our shared marine space, supporting our commitments to net zero, protection of the marine environment, energy security, food security, and thriving communities. We are considering options to undertake further spatially-explicit planning as part of the NMP2 development, whilst safeguarding existing, sustainable industry and balancing the need for protection and enhancement of the marine environment.

2.2.3 Inconsistency with other Scottish Government Policies

Those who opposed the proposals often perceived conflicts between the HPMA policy and a range of legislation, policies and initiatives. Respondents felt the impact on all sectors needed to be considered and for a just transition to be provided for those affected by the proposals, particularly in island communities.

Scottish Government Comment

The Scottish Government recognises that had the HPMA policy been progressed, there would have been a need to reconcile a wide range of views and potential impacts including both those identified in the consultation documents and by respondents opposed to the policy proposals in the consultation.

There are synergies between the concerns raised in relation to consistency with other Scottish Government policies and other concerns raised by respondents. In particular, some expressed views that policies in relation to the topic of marine conservation and protection would benefit from a more bottom-up community led approach that need not necessarily entail banning of all extractive and depositional activities in order to achieve enhanced levels of protection.

The Scottish Government’s response is to recognise the value of policy development through closer engagement with local communities and bottom-up support for enhancing marine protection. This approach will allow local input into shaping any future policy thus helping ensure support and allowing for a just transition for any marine users who may be impacted.

2.3 Evidence Base

In this section, the key themes from respondents have been split into sub-themes due to the size and complexity of the information on this topic.

2.3.1. Use of robust science and evidence

Many respondents commented (both those opposed to the draft HPMA approach and those who were supportive), that robust science and evidence were important aspects, and agreed with this draft principle. Respondents were also concerned about the availability of a robust evidence base and questioned how the evidence would be used in reality.

Scottish Government Comment

Science and evidence always have and will continue to underpin our approach to marine protection and conservation. Evidence comes in many forms (survey records, fishing catches, local knowledge, modelled data), each with varying degrees of confidence. It is therefore important that each evidence type is considered in a transparent way to help feed into discussions (see also section 2.3, subsection 4). In any future and ongoing policy development we will consider opportunities to discuss types of information available with stakeholders and their ambitions. We will also consider stakeholders ambitions in terms of evidence base, alongside information on potential impacts and how to embed the environmental principles, including the precautionary principles in further policy development.

2.3.2. Requirement for Enhanced protection

Respondents questioned the need for further protection measures and evidence of deterioration of our seas, whilst others were supportive of stricter protection, mentioning the need for urgent action considering the climate and biodiversity crises.

Scottish Government Comment

There is a range of evidence available from a variety of sources that highlights concerning trends of deterioration in the marine environment. Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 (SMA 2020) identified concerns of varying severity and spatial scale for the status of most of the ecosystem components included in the assessment of species and habitats in Scotland’s seas. For example, SMA 2020 identified many concerns for salmon and sea trout, biogenic habitats (e.g., mussel beds and seagrass), plankton, and the extent of physical disturbance to seafloor habitats. Good Environmental Status (GES) has not been achieved for most of the components (a summary of progress towards GES can been viewed on the UK Marine Strategy Assessment Marine Online Assessment Tool (MOAT)). An updated Marine Strategy Assessment is due in 2024, however the most current data from 2018 indicates that, at the UK level, GES has not been achieved for 11 out of the 15 indicators including birds, fish, seafloor habitats, non-indigenous species, or commercial fish. The UK report on the implementation of the EU Habitats Directive (under Article 17) was published in 2019 and provides information on the conservation status of habitats and species listed in Annexes of the Directive. Assessments are made for 16 marine species and 8 marine habitats. For these, the conservation status of 12 species and one habitat is unknown, for 3 species and 7 habitats it is unfavourable and only considered favourable for one species (grey seal). OSPAR has recently assessed the environmental status of the Northeast Atlantic (OSPAR Quality Status Report 2023) and points to trends in declining biodiversity and continued habitat degradation, emphasising additional measures are required to alter this course.

The Scottish Government has an ongoing programme of work to protect and enhance the marine environment (see section 2.3.3), which will help deliver conservation goals. However, to halt the biodiversity decline and ensure a maintained path of recovery, we must together continue to take action to enhance the protection in our seas.

2.3.3. Existing MPA network.

Amongst respondents who were opposed to the introduction of HPMAs, as consulted on, many felt that strengthening the existing MPA network should be the focus over any new designations, whilst others questioned the need for strengthening the existing MPA network and the evidence behind claims of ecosystem deterioration.

Scottish Government Comment

There is ongoing work to implement management measures for fishing activities within MPAs that don’t yet have them, alongside additional measures outside these sites to protect the Priority Marine Features (PMFs) most sensitive to bottom contacting mobile gear. These measures are part of Scottish Government’s three pillar approach to marine conservation. The three pillars are: i) Species conservation ii) Site protection iii) Wider seas policies and measures. Completion of this work will help to achieve our aim of a well-managed MPA network, as well as contributing to maintaining the natural resources and services we depend on.

Since the MPA Network – 2018 Report to the Scottish Parliament, an in-depth assessment of Scotland’s seas was undertaken and published in 2020. Evidence within this report, alongside other information (see section 2.3, subsection 2), indicates the health of our seas is declining and that further measures are required in response to the loss of biodiversity, impacts associated with climate change and ocean acidification, and to continue to support the aim of sustainable use of Scotland’s seas. The next MPA network report to Parliament is due at the end of 2024. It will focus on the status of the MPA network since 2018, including progress towards a coherent, well-managed network.

2.3.4. Local knowledge

Many respondents, both opposed and supportive of the policy proposals, highlighted that local knowledge should be valued and used in the evidence base to identify areas.

Scottish Government Comment

Local knowledge will be a vital component in the development of any new approach to enhance marine protection. We recognise that coastal communities and those whose livelihoods depend on Scotland’s seas have invaluable knowledge of their areas. Inclusion of this knowledge will be considered alongside other sources of evidence to identify potential areas for enhanced marine protection. This will require adequate engagement with communities, marine users, and other stakeholders to collaboratively develop proposals and to ensure the success of these areas for both biodiversity and people.

2.3.5. Blue Carbon Evidence

Key Findings from Consultation Responses

Some respondents argued that there is a lack of evidence on this topic with too many unknowns, whilst others stated that it was an important aspect to consider and that it may help with climate change mitigation.

Scottish Government Comment

In the last decade, there has been a significant amount of blue carbon research both within Scotland and globally (see a 2023 review here). Blue carbon habitats (e.g. seagrass beds) are known to have an important role in the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, which means they provide a nature-based solution to help mitigate the climate crisis. Blue carbon habitats can also play an important role in the long-term storage of carbon, with some habitats, including seabed sediments, storing carbon that has accumulated over thousands of years.

We acknowledge there are uncertainties surrounding the fate of buried organic carbon in certain habitats when it is physically disturbed and re-exposed to oxygen. In particular, the magnitude of the impact is not currently well-understood, however disturbance to blue carbon habitats has the potential to impact long-term stores of blue carbon, which may affect climate change mitigation and further exacerbate the climate crisis. In recognition of the importance of the marine environment for naturally storing carbon, and the gaps in the evidence base to inform policy development, the Scottish Government established the Scottish Blue Carbon Forum (SBCF) in 2018. Nonetheless, this uncertainty will be considered in future discussions on enhanced marine protection.

2.3.6. Essential Fish Habitats

Some respondents questioned how the definition of ‘essential fish habitats’ was decided and there was some scepticism over their use/importance.

Scottish Government Comment

Critical fish habitats were specifically mentioned as a potential driver for HPMA identification in the Bute House Agreement and therefore were included in the NatureScot and JNCC advice on selection criteria. The term ‘critical fish habitat’ has not been used previously in a Scottish policy context but is analogous to the more commonly used term ‘essential fish habitat’ (EFH).

The concept of EFH is broadly used in fishery ecology and management, and in particular as an aspect of the ecosystem-based approach, making an important connection between protection of habitat for both sustainable fisheries and biodiversity outcomes. EFH is of such importance it is reflected in legislation in some countries, for example in the United States where the 1976 Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act defined EFH as:

"those waters and substrata necessary to fish for spawning, breeding, feeding, or growth to maturity".

This definition was therefore used for the draft site selection guidelines. Although the focus of EFH is often on finfish, the concept can extend to other relevant species, such as commercial shellfish (Rosenberg et al 2000, STECF 2006). Using this wide definition allows the consideration of links between critical habitats and the services they are providing (e.g., nursery, feeding, refugia, spawning etc.).

EFH include habitats which not only provide a suitable or functional habitat, but where those habitats provide an added value, e.g., in greater contribution to egg/spawn survival (spawning grounds) or greater recruitment into adult populations (nursery grounds). As a result of this EFH, when in a healthy and productive condition, can contribute disproportionately to the viability of fish populations and the provision of associated ecosystem services. This is reflected in fisheries management where in a number of areas, including Scottish waters, restrictions have been implemented for the protection of commercial species at spawning or during the juvenile stage of their life cycle.

2.3.7. Sea level changes

Some respondents were unclear how enhanced protection or HPMAs could help with sea level changes.

Scottish Government Comment

Ecosystems close to the shore can play a part in protecting coastal communities from the impacts from storms and sea level rise. For instance, certain habitats such as kelp forests or seagrass beds can help stabilise sediments and attenuate/reduce wave energy thus slowing floodwater advancing and reducing coastal damage from storms. Degrees of protection to coasts are highly variable dependent on location and habitat type. Protection of such ecosystems from high levels of human pressures will increase their ability to provide coastal protection, in turn helping to protect assets onshore.

2.3.8. Enjoyment and appreciation

The importance of enjoyment and appreciation of the marine environment, and the people who would benefit from this, were questioned by a number of respondents. Others recognised the positive effects that enjoyment and marine recreation could bring to health and wellbeing and were pleased they were being considered.

Scottish Government Comment

Enjoyment and appreciation of the marine environment could arise from various outlets, including from leisure and recreational activities such as sailing and SCUBA diving, from nature-based tourism such as wildlife watching, or the sense of connectedness, spiritual or aesthetic appreciation felt when taking a coastal walk. These benefits can be valued by both local communities and visitors alike.

The importance of oceans and seas to our physical health and mental wellbeing have also been recognised as part of the social focussed outcomes of the Blue Economy Vision for Scotland.

The economic benefit generated by marine tourism and recreation is closely linked to the quality of the natural environment and can be quantified in monetary terms.

Other aspects of enjoyment and appreciation such as spirituality, aesthetic appreciation and positive mental wellbeing are not as easy to quantitatively measure – especially as what constitutes “enjoyment and appreciation” may differ significantly between individuals and local communities.

Future policies that continue to enhance marine protection will require dialogue with stakeholders at a local level to determine the importance and inclusion of “enjoyment and appreciation” in considerations within individual localities as there is no “one size fits all”.

Respondents also suggested that there was a perceived bias towards “carefully managed enjoyment and appreciation” compared to the proposed prohibited activities, with statements that many of the prohibited activities follow stricter guidelines and are more stringently monitored and assessed than recreational activities.

Scottish Government Comment

We acknowledge that recreational activities range from wild swimming to jet skis/motorboat use, and therefore the risk factors associated with these recreational activities can vary significantly. To help users access and enjoy the marine environment responsibly, the use of guidelines and codes of conduct can help mitigate risks (e.g., Scottish Marine Wildlife Watching Code, BSAC Diver Code, The Green Blue, WiSe Scheme).

2.3.9. Monitoring

Some respondents commented that since the introduction of MPAs, monitoring to evaluate their effectiveness (including benefits to biodiversity) has been limited and therefore questioned the capacity for HPMAs to also be monitored.

Scottish Government Comment

The Scottish MPA Monitoring Strategy was published in 2017 and we are committed to gathering appropriate evidence to assess the condition and effectiveness of our MPAs, to meet legislative obligations. The Strategy sets out a framework and principles to guide monitoring in MPAs and includes aspects of adaptive management and close working with others to improve efficiencies. This strategy is due to be updated in 2026 and evidence from our MPA monitoring will continue to be used to inform our approach to marine protection in Scotland. It is important to note that routine monitoring will not occur in every MPA, and a risk-based approach will be taken to prioritising monitoring activities as detailed in the Strategy.

2.4 Consultation Process

The consultation generated a high degree of interest indicating a willingness to engage with the Scottish Government. From the respondents who were slightly or very satisfied with the process, the comprehensive nature of the consultation was noted and the opportunity it gave to provide comments was welcomed. The information sessions and extended deadline were regarded as helpful.

However, there were widespread criticisms about the process, the accompanying documents and the questions, with the majority of respondents stating they were slightly or very dissatisfied. Criticisms were aimed at a range of issues such as the complexity of the questions and lack of accessibility.

More detail can be found in Annex 5 of the consultation analysis.

Scottish Government Comment

The subject of HPMAs is a complex one that comprises many different issues. As such, the consultation was significant in volume and covered a wide range of topics.

Every effort was made to ensure that questions were clear, objective and easy to navigate. The provision of a scale allowed respondents to indicate their level of support or opposition for/against a topic and text boxes accommodated a large variety of input. In recognition of the technicality of some of the information presented, care was taken to ask specific questions and signpost to the associated information in the relevant document.

In view of the consultation launch date of 12 December 2022, an extension of two weeks to account for the Christmas break, was added to the standard 12-week consultation period. In recognition of the volume of information published, a further four-week extension was subsequently applied to the deadline, resulting in an 18-week period of consultation.

However, the results of the online consultation questionnaire were clear: the majority of respondents who used Citizen Space were slightly or very dissatisfied with the consultation. We value this feedback, and every effort will be made to create positive changes to how we deliver any future consultations on marine protection. Additionally, this feedback has been shared with relevant Scottish Government teams, as well as to the software providers, to inform future improvement work.

As set out in the consultation, the intention was always to develop proposals hand in hand with those who may be impacted by them. That is why we chose to consult early in the process. We want to our seas to be sustainable for the future and want to work with Scotland’s communities to reach that outcome together. There will be a continued and improved focus on early engagement and collaboration with stakeholders on future policies to enhance marine protection.



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