The Scottish Skipper Expo 2023 will be officially opened by Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon today.

Minister treads difficult path over no-go zones in sea

Rural Affairs Secretary will promise space for fishing at Skipper Expo but won’t back down over HPMAs


Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon will acknowledge the strength of feeling in the fishing sector about the Scottish Government’s hugely controversial proposal for Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) when she officially opens the Scottish Skipper Expo 2023 in Aberdeen today.

The Scottish Government cabinet minister, whose responsibilities include fishing and aquaculture, will describe the fishing industry as “the lifeblood of coastal Scotland”.

In her speech, Gougeon is expected to stress the importance of fishing to rural economies and communities, and pledge to continue close engagement with the sector as changes to how the sea area is managed are made.

Addressing the recent debate about HPMAs, which will exclude ban fishing, fish farming, shellfish farming, and seaweed farming in 10% of Scotland’s seas, Gougeon will acknowledge the fishing sector’s uncertainty about the space that fishing will have to operate in.

'Change is needed'

She will say: “There must always be space for fishing – the fishing industry must and will survive and thrive. I know that’s what you want, and it is firmly what the Scottish Government wants too.”

Gougeon is expected to emphasise the Scottish Government’s view that change is needed to help to sustain and restore Scottish fisheries for the future, and the communities and people that depend on them.

She will add: “Our knowledge about the impact of human activity on the seabed, the need to guard against biodiversity loss and mitigate against climate change, drives us to seek improvements.

“This means taking measures to improve our marine environment, but it also requires us to balance the sustainable use of marine resources.”

Gougeon is also expected to say that retaining consumer confidence in Scottish seafood as a brand relies on the accountability of Scotland’s sea fisheries and the ability to provide reassurance to buyers across the world that Scottish seafood is sustainably fished.

In 2022 Scotland’s seafood was the single largest overseas food export, worth £1 billion, with more than half coming from salmon farming and most of the rest from fishing.

Bute House Agreement

The HPMA policy is a result of the Bute House Agreement between the ruling Scottish National Party, which does not have an overall majority at Holyrood, and the Scottish Green Party, which is supporting the SNP with votes in Parliament in return for input into government policy and two ministerial posts.

More than a third of Scotland’s waters are already designated as Marine Protected Areas which place limits on activities that threaten specific features in those areas, but the HPMAs would offer blanket protection to everything in them, regardless of specific need.

The HPMA proposal has provoked anger and fear in coastal communities, and in the second of two debates on the subject on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week three SNP MSPs last week rebelled against them in a vote at Holyrood, although the SNP and Greens had enough numbers to win.

'Notice of execution'

Fergus Ewing, Gougeon’s predecessor as Rural Affairs Secretary, was one of the rebels. In Tuesday’s debate, he described a consultation paper on HPMAs as “a notice of execution” for coastal communities.

Another high-profile SNP rebel, former Finance Minister Kate Forbes, has described HPMAs as an example of how not to do government and warned that they could wreck efforts to sustain and grow populations in remote areas.

In Wednesday’s debate, Western Isles SNP MSP Alasdair Allan said he had never had to confront anything quite like the issue if HPMAs before. The proposal was “a policy which, to the best of my recollection, literally every single person in my island community who has offered me a view is strongly opposed”.

'Driven by political agendas'

Tavish Scott, chief executive of salmon industry trade body Salmon Scotland, said the plans appear to be driven by political agendas rather than science, and that there is currently no evidence that the proposed HPMAs will work.

The HPMA proposal has been compared to the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, and Scottish folk stars Skipinnish have released a song called The Clearances Again in protest against HPMAs. It was written by Skipinnish co-founder and fisherman Angus MacPhail and sung by lifelong fisherman Donald Francis MacNeil.

Lyrics include the lines:

Generations before me have followed, The toil and the call of the seas, But the soul will be torn from our future, And the heart from the Hebrides.

In another verse MacNeil states that The sea is my way and my truth, then adds: But my life and my living must go, For the fashions of urban ideals, Where passions of ignorance play, To the lies of political deals – No care for the lives in their way.