With anger raging over the SNP-Green government’s controversial plans to designate 10% of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) where fishing, sea angling, seaweed harvesting, water sports, and virtually every activity would be banned, there are increasing demands for politicians to wake up and listen to the country’s fishers. In England, marine conservationists have persuaded the Westminster government to designate around 0.53% of coastal waters as HPMAs in a series of pilot projects. But in Scotland, the area is more than 20 times greater, threatening livelihoods and entire fishing communities. Kate Forbes MSP, the former SNP contender for the job of First Minister, says that “if the proposals go ahead as planned, the rarest species in our coastal areas and islands will soon be people.”

Scotland’s fishing communities are not alone in their opposition to new marine conservation measures. In Europe, fishers from many countries are staging a series of protests against European Commission proposals aimed at ‘Protecting and restoring marine ecosystems for sustainable and resilient fisheries.’ The fishers argue that the measures, particularly a ban on bottom trawling, where weighted nets are dragged across the sea floor, will leave the sector reliant on imports, putting thousands of jobs at risk and making the industry unattractive to younger generations. Fishing community leaders are pointing out that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is based on three pillars – environment, economic and social sustainability, but that the Commission are focused only on environmental considerations, ignoring the other two. It appears that the Scottish government’s plans for drastic sea closures is a determined effort to follow the EU’s example.

Scotland’s fishing sector is already facing huge challenges caused by inflation, Brexit, the post Covid pandemic impacts, the spiralling cost of fuel and the burgeoning encroachment on traditional fishing grounds by offshore windfarms. The closure of 10% of our seas to all fishing would be the final nail in the coffin for our fishing communities. Instead of helping the sector to achieve fuel efficiency and help to cut carbon emissions, as well as consulting with fishers on the best ways to reduce impact on the seabed, the SNP-Green coalition is hellbent on an outright ban. Anger and frustration in the industry has been exacerbated by the Scottish government’s inability to say exactly which areas of our coastal waters they intend to close. For fishers who daily risk their lives to bring fresh, healthy seafood of the finest quality to our tables, the Scottish government’s plans are bewildering. Our fishers already work under some of the strictest regulatory controls in the world and are proud of the huge efforts they have made and continue to make to protect the marine environment and recover fish stocks.

Scotland’s fishers have been accustomed for years to sea area closures implemented on a seasonal basis to protect spawning stocks, or sometimes temporary fishing bans to protect a high abundance of juvenile fish. But designating 10% of our seas as HPMAs, under the terms of the controversial Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Greens, would be ruinous. The Scottish Greens have only seven MSPs, two of whom, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, were made ministers under the Bute House deal. Both Harvie and Slater are regional list MSPs, for Glasgow and Lothian respectively. They have little or no rural affiliation or aptitude, yet, according to the Green Party’s manifesto, they wish to see 30% of our waters “protected”, with a third of this area “highly protected”. There is a growing realisation in Scotland’s rural communities that the Bute House agreement has left the tail wagging the dog, with First Minister Humza Yousaf now bound to an untenable coalition deal that has divided his own party.

Last week Mairi Gougeon, the Scottish government’s Rural Affairs Secretary, announced her plans to ban the commercial fishing of sandeels in Scottish waters. This is simply the latest proposal from the SNP/Green coalition that regards banning all kinds of fishing as a key policy objective. Although sandeels are largely harvested by Danish industrial trawlers, they are converted into fishmeal and fish oil for use in Scotland’s mushrooming farmed salmon sector. A total ban on the fishing of sandeels will create major problems for our fish farms, who may be forced to access fishmeal from highly expensive sources like Chile. It is such unintended consequences of the SNP/Green blanket ban policies, often hailed as great environmental advances, that create such chaos in the fisheries sector.

Closing the sandeel fishery and banning all fishing from 10% of Scottish waters, are extremist policies enthusiastically embraced by the Greens, whose ‘ecosocialism’ and Luddite approach to economic sustainability would even see Scotland’s oil and gas sector shut down tomorrow with the loss of over one hundred thousand jobs. Our coastal communities would face devastation. The SNP/Green government must listen to the voice of rural Scotland. Elspeth Macdonald, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, says: “The HPMA policy arose from the political agreement between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens. It lacks a proper evidence base and does not articulate with any clarity what government is aiming to achieve”. She added: “Why should coastal communities and fishermen be the ones to suffer from a political trade-off decided around the Bute House table?” 

The Scottish government needs to have a radical re-think on its HPMA and other fishery proposals and, crucially, it must listen to Scotland’s fishers and rural communities. Rather than close down vast tracts of our fisheries sector, Humza Yousaf should close down the Bute House agreement and tell his two Green ministers, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, to get on their eco-friendly bikes.