The Scottish Sea Farms personnel boat Cubbie Roo in front of creels stacked on Tingwall pier. Both could be gone if an HPMA is established in Orkney.

Orkney’s seafood sector unites against coastal ban proposals

Salmon farmers, fishers, and suppliers warn HPMAs could destroy communities

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Orkney’s seafood sector, including salmon producer Scottish Sea Farms, has united against Scottish Government proposals that it says could threaten the future of critical coastal businesses and the communities they support.

Fishers, fish farmers and companies in the extended supply chain have warned that the introduction of Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will destroy aquaculture and commercial fishing activities which are cornerstones of the Orkney economy.

The proposals prevent any form of fishing or aquaculture within or close to an HPMA, including cessation of existing activity.

Ministers have pledged to designate at least 10% of Scottish seas as HPMAs within three years, on top of the 37% of Scottish seas which are designated as Marine Protection Areas where some activities are restricted. The government in Edinburgh claims that the strictly enforced new zones will conserve marine ecosystems while continuing to provide economic and social benefits.

Lack of data

But Orkney seafood representatives said a lack of baseline data, combined with an absence of defined tools and methodologies to measure the success of the HPMAs, undermines the ability of the policy to achieve its environmental objectives.

There are fears that the government’s 2026 deadline will see HPMAs rushed through without proper scrutiny of how they will work in practice or an understanding of the significant socio-economic impacts resulting from the proposed restrictions.

Fingers crossed for a Forbes win?

Scotland’s coastal seafood sector will be keeping a keen eye on the result of the leadership election for the Scottish National Party, expected to be announced this afternoon.

Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes has pledged to scrap the HPMA plan if she becomes leader, and is subsequently elected First Minister. She described the plan as “an example of how not to do government”.

Salmon Scotland, which represents producers, suppliers, and others connected with the sector, has written to all three SNP leadership candidates – Forbes, Humza Yousaf, and Ash Regan – about HPMAs.

It urged them to “thoroughly consider the social and economic impacts of this policy on the sectors, industries and communities that operate in Scotland’s coastal regions, as well as those that are impacted across Scotland, through the supply chain”.

In the UK, Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) agreed to trial HPMAs – which cover just 0.53% of English waters - to test their effectiveness as a conservation measure and to gauge their social and economic impacts.

The Scottish government has chosen not to do this and, as a result, is placing the livelihoods of coastal and rural communities at risk, said seafood leaders.

Fishing and aquaculture in Orkney directly employ more than 390 people, as well as the hundreds of supply chain jobs in more than 30 enterprises.

'An existential threat'

Hannah Fennel, head of Orkney Fisheries Association, said: “The introduction of HPMAs acts as an existential threat to marine industries and jeopardises both their future and the communities who rely on them.

“Sustainability and stewardship are at the heart of Orkney’s fishing and aquaculture sectors, and we are committed to help secure healthy seas and ecosystems around Scotland.

“However, we do not believe HPMAs are the solution. Instead, we need a conservation tool which is grounded in science, not on assumptions and ideology, and takes a constructive and rigorous approach to marine management, and which does not adversely impact island communities.”

Contradicts aim

Scottish Sea Farms head of sustainability Anne Anderson said: “One aim of HPMAs is to enhance the benefits that coastal communities and others derive from our seas. But the ban on aquaculture and fishing in these areas is contradictory to achieving this aim, given their importance as sources of employment and investment in these communities.

“The proposals insist that impacts will not be disproportionately focused on some sectors. But while existing developments for marine renewables, ports, harbours, marinas, cables and pipelines, as well as oil extraction, are allowed to remain, because they are either defined as being of national importance or cannot be relocated, recoverable sectors such as aquaculture and fishing activity are excluded.”

Anderson told BBC Radio Orkney that the proposal was made more “on the basis of assumption and ideology than any scientific evidence or indeed, common sense”.

Devastating for jobs

Orkney supplier Julius Garrett said: “The proposed HPMAs would be devastating not just to the aquaculture and fisheries sector in Orkney but also to the hundreds of jobs in the supply chain which depend on these businesses.

“Our small business, Garrett Bros, provides local haulage and Hiab (lorry- or vessel-mounted) crane services in Orkney, and the majority of our income comes from clients who are aquaculture producers. Without the aquaculture supply chain in Orkney, we couldn't operate.”

Opposition to HPMAs has also come from the Communities Inshore Fisheries Alliance, which represents creel fishers, mobile fishers, line fishers, dive fishers, and other small family businesses, from Orkney, to the Western Isles, to the Clyde.

Last week, Shetland Island Council unanimously supported a motion instructing their officers to oppose HPMAs in the “strongest possible terms”. Western Isles councillors, too, said the proposals would be “devastating” for the local economy.

The seafood sector in Orkney is calling on individuals and organisations in the islands to read and respond to the Scottish government’s consultation on the HPMA proposals, which closes on 17 April.