EDITORIAL: New marine protection zones should be rejected

Never could a single sentence better highlight the disconnect between those who now legislate on the Hebridean seascape, and those who work within it.

“On a positive note windsurfing, swimming and snorkelling will be allowed, at carefully managed levels.”

This is the killer closing line of a nightmare scenario which outlines the terms of proposed new environmental designations for west coast waters – and has been roundly condemned in the communities most affected.

As reported in this week’s edition these new rules have the potential to devastate business, lives and livelihoods on either side of the Minches.

Little wonder that as details have emerged, the sense of incredulity and anger has spread.

The root cause of this policy – which essentially threatens to wipe out fishing and seafood processing in the Hebrides – is the Bute House Agreement between the SNP-led Scottish Government, and the Green Party.

This agreement commits them to designating at least 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas by 2026.

All the evidence so far suggests that these targets can only be achieved by building on and extending existing environmental designations that are already a source of concern for those who make a living from the sea.

These sort of designations are the kind which used to be blamed on the EU, but such charges no longer hold weight.

The power is all now in the gift of our own government in Edinburgh, and the potential consequences could hardly be more stark.

In areas of HPMAs there would be no economic activity allowed – no commercial or recreational fishing or any kind by net, creel or rod.

There would be no scallop diving, fish farms or seaweed harvesting either, and forget about energy extraction or even new harbour developments.

If these rules are applied to vast areas of our inshore waters, it would simply be the end for the smaller fishing fleet and the successful processing businesses they supply – with hundreds of jobs lost as a result.

As WHFP columnist and Western Isles councillor Norrie Macdonald points out, these are enterprises which have benefitted from a bounty which has been successfully maintained and monitored “through carefully-managed preservation schemes which already exist and can be deployed at any sign of detriment to stock”.

The suggestion that making a living from Hebridean waters ought to be banned, while enjoyment for leisure should be encouraged is also revealing.

Is this a sign that a battle for the future soul of Scotland’s west coast and islands is being waged without thought for those first in the firing line?

There is no sense of hyperbole in comments such as those issued this week by fishing skippers like Donald MacLennan from Harris.

He said: “The sea is one of the Hebrides’ largest and most diverse assets.

“Unfortunately, access to this important resource is soon to be under threat through the Scottish government’s HPMA proposals……even the act of catching a solitary mackerel from a rowing boat will be considered a criminal activity.

“In their motivation to criminalise one industry that has existed for millennia, they will isolate and damage our coastal communities considerably.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar deserve credit for leading the fight back against these senseless and damaging proposals.

These arbitrary HPMAs should be scrapped, and if the consequence of the SNP leadership contest is to see the Scottish Greens cut adrift, it would be no bad thing either.

Instead, perhaps it is time to cast the net wider in search of representation and ideas that would better serve both the economy and the environment of the north west Highlands and Islands.