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Critics of the Scottish Government proposals for Highly Protected Marine Areas were left open-mouthed yesterday (Thursday March 23) after two islands MSPs reported back from a meeting with the ministers involved. 

The view of fishing organisations, community development groups and fishing businesses is that the proposals will obliterate their communities. 

They see this as a "rewilding of the sea' where humans are the invasive species that has to be driven out.

On March 8, the Chairman of the Primary Industries Working Group at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Councillor Norman MacDonald said: “These HPMA proposals, if they proceed, will be devastating to the economy of the Outer Hebrides. 

"HPMA’s will decimate the fisheries sector, will devastate some of our most peripheral communities and will lead to further depopulation from our islands. 

"There appears to be a total disconnect between remote urban policy makers in Edinburgh and real people leading real lives in communities across the Outer Hebrides. 

"It is clear that Edinburgh-based Government Ministers and policy makers have no understanding of the devastating consequences these disgraceful HPMA proposals will have on the economy and community of the Outer Hebrides if they come to fruition.  Even worse they do not seem to care.”

But in Edinburgh it seems much more a case of "business as usual" with the Scottish Government reiterating that it is currently consulting on the process for HPMAs with a view to selecting sites in 2025. These sites will place strict limits on activities, such as fishing and aquaculture, while allowing non-damaging recreational activities to take place at carefully managed levels. In total, 10% of Scotland’s seas are due to be designated as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) by 2026.

Carefully managed levels of "non-damaging recreational activities" may, for instance, involve official limits on the amount of swimming in the sea that is permitted. 

Two SNP MSPs representing Scotland’s west coast island communities told yesterday how they met with Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands Mairi Gougeon MSP and Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform Mairi McAllan MSP  to discuss the Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan and Argyll and Bute MSP Jenni Minto say that they "represented a range of concerns they have received from across their constituencies about potential negative economic impacts of any designations."

They say that Ministers recognised the concerns expressed and reiterated their commitment to continue engaging robustly with fishers going forward, including in the form of face-to-face roundtables with relevant local stakeholders.

Jenni Minto MSP said:“I am very grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs & Islands and the Minister for Environment, Biodiversity and Land Reform for meeting with me to hear the concerns that my constituents have raised.

“I am pleased that both were very clear that they want to work with the fishing and wider Argyll & Bute community to ensure the HPMA proposals deliver on the climate challenge and biodiversity aims  whilst avoiding negatively impacting the sustainability our coastal communities. I have asked that they meet with relevant stakeholders from my constituency in roundtable meetings."

The consultation on these proposals has been extended until the 17th of April and I would strongly encourage anyone who has yet to take part to do so. My office will be very happy to help if people have questions in completing the consultation.”

And Alasdair Allan MSP commented: “I would like to thank the Minister for engaging with the concerns raised at today’s meeting. The strength of feeling in communities which could potentially be affected by the introduction of HPMAs is significant.

"As is clear from the conversations I have had with fishers and others, there are concerns that any introduction of HPMAs around the Western Isles would seriously impact fishing businesses – many of which have been built up over generations. Therefore, it is vital, in my view, that for islands impacted by the introduction of an HPMA, there must be specific and effective guarantees on economic impact.

“It is crucial that the views of local communities likely to be impacted by the introduction of HPMAs are not just listened to, but taken fully into account during the decision-making process over HPMA designation. The continued right to fish sustainably from Scotland’s inshore waters is paramount for those who rely on the sea for their local communities’ very survival.”