May 2, 2023
Take your community with you
You’d think it would be pretty much impossible to top the long running disruption of ferry services as the single biggest frustration for island and coastal communities, but lately the Scottish Government looked like they were trying to do just that with the announcement that Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) were to be introduced as the principle tool for tackling the biodiversity crisis in the marine environment. It’s not that comprehensive action to restrict the damage being done to the marine environment isn’t essential, it’s just that, as the community on Arran have shown, you’ve got to take your communities with you.
Lamlash Bay shows how HPMAs should be done
The recent consultation on Highly Protected Marine Areas has been causing a big stir in recent weeks. With misinformation, protest songs, twitter battles and political point-scoring, HPMAs have rapidly become the latest frontline in the battle over Scotland’s future.
Amidst this furore, however, and against the background of inspiring projects like Scotland: Ocean Nation and Wild Isles, there are opportunities to harness the recent attention placed on the ocean. A chance to take a step back and see the wider picture – the state of Scotland’s seas.
It’s easy to forget how our thriving seas used to look. Recent research shows that disturbance of Scotland’s seabed is widespread, fish landings are decreasing and marine ecosystems are suffering throughout Scotland’s seas, bringing the fishing industry, along with our hopes of addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, down with it.
The Scottish Government has admitted that it is failing to meet its own targets to achieve healthy seas. Decades of failure to implement effective marine management and address the damage caused by unchecked scallop dredging and bottom-trawling has left Scotland with a damaged and impoverished marine environment. Without healthy seas we cannot have healthy coastal communities.
The Highly Protected Marine Area (HPMA) project, part of the Bute House agreement between SNP and the Scottish Greens, recognises the degraded state of Scotland’s seas and the urgent need for action to recover marine ecosystem health. COAST recognises the need for action and that HPMAs could be a part of the solution. However, if pursued in isolation from joined-up spatial management and a genuine just transition, they risk upset and divided communities and a failure to address the real issues affecting the health of Scotland’s marine environment.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The 13-year campaign to designate the Lamlash Bay No Take Zone galvanised the Arran community and brought people together to demand better protection of the seas for the benefit of everyone. It united people with a passion for the underwater world and opened up the possibilities of what healthy seas can deliver for coastal communities, to benefit low-impact fisheries, tourism, art, businesses, cultural heritage and identity. Of the Arran locals surveyed in 2020, 97% of people who knew about the NTZ thought it had positive benefits.
On the seabed itself, research has shown that this level of protection has led to a significant increase in the diversity and abundance of marine life. Habitats that provide nursery and feeding areas are protected, improving the opportunities for species to thrive and grow including commercially important fish and shellfish.
This kind of recovery spills over into surrounding areas where extractive activities are permitted, so benefitting the industries that operate there. These areas store more carbon than degraded areas, reducing the speed of climate change and boosting our resilience to its impacts.
The possible benefits gained by allowing these small pockets to recover from decades of exploitation are innumerable. Placed in the right locations, with an effective compliance strategy, ongoing monitoring plans and nested amongst other zoned spatial measures that don’t just displace damaging practices and spatial squeeze elsewhere, HPMAs will be transformative.
But they cannot succeed without community support. This includes local fishers, together with recreational users, business owners, families and individuals. A recent poll showed that coastal communities are more concerned than the national average about the marine environment in Scotland. The status quo will not secure the thriving coastal environment and culture we want to leave for the next generation.
The seas are a public asset and communities have a legitimate right to demand better management and have a say in how they will look in decades to come.