The Scottish Government's proposal for highly protected marine areas (HPMAs), from which fishing and other activities would be banned, has been dismissed as a "distraction", as campaigners have issued renewed calls for a "three mile limit" banning destructive fishing from inshore areas.
In the wake of Kate Forbes's declaration that, if elected SNP leader, she would ditch the plan, marine protection advocates have emerged divided on how best to respond to the proposal.
David Stinson of the Scottish Scallop Divers Association called for a three mile limit banning bottom-towed fishing practices. He said: "There is more than enough evidence to ban mobile gear outright, never mind a three-mile limit. Why is something which was possible in 1889 now not possible, despite the advances in marine science, and a wealth of evidence pointing to the damage done by bottom-impacting mobile gear? "
Full unlimited access to The Herald is only £2 for 2 months.
From1889 to 1984, a three mile limit banned bottom-trawling from 36 percent of Scotland's inshore sea.
The idea of three mile limit has already been dismissed by the Scottish government.
Earlier this month, Mairi Gougeon, minister for rural economy and tourism, said: "We know that some stakeholders would like to see a three-mile limit restricting mobile fishing gear introduced. The Scottish Government has been clear that we have no plans to do so. Such blanket spatial restrictions are not consistent with an evidence-based approach, do not embrace the benefits of new technology and are inconsistent with the nuanced approach outlined in our 2020-2030 Fisheries Management Strategy."
David Stinson said: "The core issue here is not about marine protected areas, HPMAs, or any other deflections and distractions. It is simply that the health of the marine environment and fisheries will never improve while these destructive fishing methods are allowed to continue.
What also concerns Stinson is the inadequate policing of the fishing industry even where it is restricted. He said: "Marine Scotland's record on responding to reports of illegal fishing within MPAs is abyssmal. Their policing of MPAs has been less than perfunctory, and often apparently designed to avoid catching anything illegal."
"This is a bogus stunt, unlikely to succeed. HPMAs are only the most recent example of cynical subterfuge, although I must admit that it's devilish cunning to divide your opponents by uniting them against what purports to be an instrument of environmental protection."
Also calling for a three mile limit is Our Seas, a coalition of marine businesses, environmental and community groups.
A spokesperson said: "We advocate a modern inshore limit on both trawling and dredging via a just transition. Our inshore waters are a cradle for so much of our marine life, providing shelter and vital nursery habitats for fish. Many inshore habitats such as maerl, reef structures, kelp, seagrass and muds are incredible carbon sinks, outperforming most terrestrial environments. Therefore recovery of these habitats will allow both fish stock recovery and combat climate change."
Currently only 2.5 percent of Scotland's inshore waters are protected from bottom trawling and over half of the country's nature conservation MPAs have no fisheries management. Though government scientists have shown bottom-trawling and dredging to be incompatible with MPA conservation objectives, these fishing activities are still permitted within many sites designated as MPAs.
The Our Seas coalition spokesperson said: "An inshore limit where bottom-towed gear is only licensed in areas where it can be ecologically and socially justified as an alternative to more sustainable fishing methods is necessary for meaningful ecosystem recovery."
The coalition, however, did not dismiss that HPMAs could be an important part of Scotland's marine protection strategy. The spokesperson said: "HPMAs must fit within a much wider fisheries management system that protects our seabed habitats and safeguards low impact fishing within the inshore zone.
"There is benefit in having sites that can produce baseline data as to what is possible in absence of direct human interference in a post industrial marine environment. However, for HPMAs to be successful, they need to be part of, not a substitution for, wider spatial management of fisheries. Fundamentally they need to be delivered in a fair and reasonable way."
The coalition also expressed concern that HPMAs might "distract from the core mission of recovering our seas".
The message, frequently, from marine protection NGOs, is that the marine environment needs far stronger protection – but that low impact fisheries should not be subject to the same restrictions as more damaging methods.
Among those backing the Scottish Government's HPMA proposal was the Blue Marine Foundation, a conservation organisation that has set up marine nature reserves around the world and has a mission to achieve 30 percent of the world's oceans protected by 2030.
Blue Marine Foundation Scotland Project Manager, Joe Richards said: "Experiences around the world have shown, consistently, that full protection, rather than measures designed to mitigate certain activities, has by far the greatest conservation impact and is one of the most effective ways of restoring marine ecosystems.
"The delivery of ten per cent of Scotland’s waters as fully protected (HPMAs) should be a central plank of Scotland’s marine recovery plans. However, they must be part of wider marine and fisheries management that includes removing destructive bottom towed fishing inside Scotland’s MPAs and prioritising low impact fisheries within its inshore waters."
Scottish Environment LINK, the umbrella body for over 40 environmental organisations, have warned candidates for the SNP leadership not to scrap plans for HPMAs if elected.
Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society and convenor of Scottish Environment LINK’s Marine Group said: "We all rely upon a healthy ocean, coastal communities most of all. We’re in the midst of an ocean emergency and all governments of the UK have failed to halt the decline of nature at sea, with declining seabed conditions and plummeting seabird populations of particular concern.
“Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) are a simple measure, proven worldwide to support ocean recovery, doubling sealife within their boundaries, overspilling into surrounding waters to benefit local fishers. Sustainable wildlife watching, education, research and enjoyment can also take place within such zones. Failing to implement HPMAs would be a massive backwards step."