Former Rural Affairs Secretary Fergus Ewing tears up his copy of the HPMA consultation document during a debate in the Scottish Parliament yesterday.

'This is not a consultation document - it is a notice of execution'

Former fisheries and aquaculture minister Fergus Ewing rips up government paper in Scottish Parliament debate about Highly Protected Marine Areas

Published Last updated

MSPs yesterday tore into the Scottish Government’s proposals to ban fishing and aquaculture from at least 10% of the nation’s seas. Fergus Ewing, the former SNP Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, went further and tore up the document setting out the proposal for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

Ewing began his speech by recalling how his mother, Winnie Ewing, had been elected to Westminster as MP for Moray and Nairn after fishermen in the constituency lost confidence in the Conservative government of Edward Heath.

“Now my fear is that they are now losing confidence in the party I have served for nearly 50 years,” said Ewing, who represents Inverness and Nairn.

Referring to the government’s proposal for HPMAs, which would exclude fishers, fish and shellfish farmers, and seaweed farmers, he said: “This is not a consultation document – it is a notice of execution.” He then tore up his copy of the document.

Not enough votes

But while Ewing’s action was the most dramatic, it was Orkney Islands Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur who may have made the most pertinent point during a passionate debate that was extended by 30 minutes to allow more MSPs to speak.

McArthur said the proposed 2026 deadline for implementing HPMAs was a ridiculously short timeframe which seemed entirely arbitrary and was “on the basis of when the next election falls”.

“Let us not be in any doubt that the government will be able to railroad through these proposals … because they will not have the numbers in this Parliament,” said McArthur.

There is no definition of what a community is or what the level of opposition would be required to be

Orkney MSP Liam McArthur

Some MSPs speaking during yesterday’s Members’ Business debate expressed relief that both First Minister Humza Yousaf and Mairi McAllan, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition, which includes the environment, had promised that HPMAs would not be imposed on communities that were vehemently opposed to them.

But others, including McArthur, wanted more detail. “There is no definition of what a community is or what the level of opposition would be required to be,” said the Orkney MSP.

A blunt instrument

The debate was instigated by Shetland LibDem MSP Beatrice Wishart, and supported by MSPs from the SNP, Conservatives, and Labour.

Wishart said HPMAs were a blunt instrument and the government’s proposals had struck fear and anxiety in coastal and island communities.

“Around half of Shetland’s economy depends on fishing and aquaculture, and those in the supply chain like hauliers and engineers rely on them,” said the MSP.

“Around three-quarters of all Scotland’s mussels are produced in Shetland, while just last week Scottish salmon (producers) were promoting their global product at Seafood Expo in Barcelona.

“All that could be seriously damaged by these proposals.”

Closures and job losses

She added: “Businesses fear closure and job losses with a wider negative impact on the whole supply chain, losses that would be a devastating outcome for coastal and island communities. We cannot leave communities on the scrapheap as we have seen in previous decades.”

Wishart and other MSPs opposed to the current HPMA proposal agreed it was important that the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss were addressed. But Wishart said that addressing the issues should be led by proportional and evidence-based policies, “not imposed by a top-down approach”.

“Effective local management and decision making has already been demonstrated in my constituency through the Shetland Fishery Regulation Order in place for over 20 years, and we have seen efforts to protect our seas through Scotland’s existing MPA (Marine Protected Area) network.”

Holistic approach

Wishart said MPAs were evidence-based and established in partnership with stakeholders to protect vulnerable habitats. “It enables conservation and sustainable use to co-exists, and if the Scottish Government put more into investment and research it could find out what conservation measures work best here.”

In contrast to MPAs, the proposed HPMAs would see an arbitrary 10% of seas closed to all but leisure activities by 2026. “A one-size-fits-all approach won’t work,” said Wishart, who pointed out that fishers had a special interest in maintaining the health of the sea to ensure the fishing future of the next generation.

“We need a holistic approach to our seas to support all the interests of stakeholders, including how the future conservation of our seas should work. The Scottish Government should rethink its policy now.”

Investments on hold

Karen Adam, SNP MSP for Banffshire and Buchan, was among those grateful for the promise that HPMAs wouldn’t be imposed on resistant communities.

“Although we do need clarity on how these communities will be defined and how we will gauge their vehement opposition, and we do need it urgently,” said Adam.

“Only today we heard of delays in the purchase of vessels as a result of a lack of certainty. We must avoid the ambiguity of uncertainty that the Tory pursuit of Brexit [has] saddled already on our blue economy.”

She added that one fisher in her constituency told her that HPMAs were “being driven by an urban agenda with little consideration of the impact on our rural communities and way of life”.

No evidence base

Brian Whittle, Conservative MSP for South Scotland region, pointed out the importance of the sea for carbon sequestration and said the sea must be managed properly, but there was no evidence base for HPMAs.

“Much of the current Scottish Government’s marine policy is, I think, driven by Scottish Green Party ideology and misleading international comparators rather than science-based evidence,” said Whittle.

Brian Whittle: "Proposing HPMAs with very little evidence of their impact in temperate waters is not just ridiculous, it is hugely irresponsible."

“The Scottish Government has admitted as much is response to portfolio questions, stating that they do not have the data to validate their policy choice but rather have policies based on, and I quote: ‘How best we can develop policy in the absence of science and data’.

“That is no way to approach such important legislation – legislation that can have such a detrimental impact upon communities reliant on a robust and sustainable blue economy. Scottish Government guesswork is what they are being offered. Proposing HPMAs with very little evidence of their impact in temperate waters is not just ridiculous, it is hugely irresponsible.”

Fishing 'just 6% of marine value'

The debate was not all one way. Ariane Burgess, Green Party MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, said that although fish stocks in Shetland were better than in other areas, 80% of the archipelago’s sea floor was in poor condition due to bottom trawling.

“If we do not take action fish stocks will continue to suffer,” said Burgess. “Fishing is indispensable but it makes up just 6% of marine economic value and 7% of marine employment.

“Our coastal economies are a rich tapestry including recreation, hospitality, tourism and shipping, and the increasingly growing sector of nature restoration. Many of these will benefit from HPMAs just like in Arran where the Lamlash Bay no-take zone has increased both tourism and catches of lobsters (nearby) and where we also hear that generally the eco-system is flourishing.

“Lamlash Bay should be recognised and funded as a formal pilot.”

Whittle asked Burgess what scientific evidence she had for HPMAs but she ignored his question.

No takers for HPMAs

Former SNP finance minister Kate Forbes, who represents Skye, welcomed McAllan’s commitment not to impose HPMAs, but added: “The difficulty, of course, is that I have not come across a single community who do want it and so I think the challenge will be finding anywhere to impose these HPMAs.”

Concluding the debate, McAllan acknowledged the emotion that has been “so clear in the exchanges today”, and pointed out that the consultation was the very beginning of the development of HPMAs.

“We have very deliberately consulted early and widely in that process and I am currently in the process of considering thousands of responses to the consultation.”

She said she noted the uncertainty caused by the HPMA proposals and would work through the responses as quickly as possible.

4,000 responses

“I am still working out how many responses were duplicates or how many were generated by campaigns but we are looking at about 4,000 responses.”

McAllan pointed out that all parties had pledged to protect the seas in their election manifestos, with the Conservatives proposing pilot HPMAs and Labour wanting HPMAs covering 20% of Scottish waters.

She added that the oceans store around 25% of the heat and 90% of the carbon dioxide caused by human activity but were reaching their limit. “If we do not protect our seas they will not be able to protect us,” said the minister.

“The actions that we take in response to that emergency must be carefully considered, fair, just, and in this case they must be developed hand in hand with the people who will be affected by them and that is exactly what I am seeking to do.”

The debate can be viewed in full on Scottish Parliament TV.

A second debate about HPMAs will take place today, in which a motion by Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton will be considered.