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The Scottish Government has published its response to the consultation which led to it ceasing HPMA plans. Photo: Clyde Fishermen

The Scottish Government has published its reasoning in ceasing plans for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) following a heated public consultation on the issue.

From 12 December 2022 to 17 April 2023, the Scottish Government embarked on a comprehensive consultation regarding the creation of HPMAs. The consultation encompassed various aspects of what HPMAs in Scotland would entail, their selection and implementation, and the potential impacts on the daily lives of citizens.

The consultation specifically sought input on the proposed HPMA policy, which would grant the government the authority to designate HPMAs in Scottish inshore waters. It was acknowledged that the introduction of HPMAs in the Scottish offshore region, situated beyond 12 nautical miles to the outer limits of the UK continental shelf, was contingent upon the UK Government transferring the necessary powers to the Scottish Government. The proposed policy framework and site selection guidelines were also intended to extend to offshore waters if the requisite powers were granted.

A total of 4,502 individual responses were received, comprising 2,458 substantive responses that conveyed individual views and 2,044 campaign responses articulating coordinated campaign viewpoints. The substantive responses encompassed contributions from 289 organizations and 2,169 individuals.

Key findings of the consultation revealed a polarized spectrum of responses, with the vast majority of participants expressing either unwavering support or firm opposition to the proposals. Approximately 55% of all respondents favoured the introduction of HPMAs, while 43% stood in opposition, with only 2% expressing neutral or ambivalent opinions. A significant portion of those in support submitted their responses through coordinated campaigns. When campaign responses were excluded, the views were weighted more towards opposition at 76%, compared to 20% in favour of the proposal.

The consultation identified shared concerns over the potential repercussions of HPMAs on local communities, particularly in rural coastal areas and islands. The importance of involving stakeholders and communities in policy development, site selection, and management was stressed by respondents on both sides of the debate. Collaboration, partnership working, and the integration of local knowledge and values were seen as pivotal by supporters and opponents alike.

Some of those opposing HPMAs questioned the inclusion of a 10% target and expressed apprehensions about disproportionate concentration in inshore areas. On the other hand, supporters acknowledged the alignment of this target with international commitments. Additionally, respondents opposing HPMAs often considered the 2026 delivery timeline unrealistic, particularly in the context of community engagement and the collection of robust scientific evidence. Many of these opponents believed that the proposed HPMA policy was not the correct approach to achieve marine conservation goals.

In June 2023, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition provided an update in the Scottish Parliament, emphasizing that the analysis of consultation responses was ongoing. It was confirmed that a comprehensive response to the consultation and future steps would be published post-summer recess. Given the highly polarized nature of responses and the substantial concerns regarding the impact on coastal and island communities, it was announced that the Scottish Government would no longer seek to implement HPMAs across 10% of Scotland’s seas by 2026.

The consultation findings also underscored the widespread support for the broader objective of preserving and conserving the marine environment. Instead of pursuing the initially proposed policy, the Scottish Government has now decided to continue its efforts to enhance marine protection, aligning with the draft Biodiversity Strategy’s aim for Scotland to be nature-positive by 2030 and acknowledging the EU Biodiversity Strategy’s 2030 targets.

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