The Scottish government has been facing mounting pressure to ditch its controversial proposals to restrict fishing and other human activity in “highly protected marine areas” (HPMAs). The British government already designated three such sites in England earlier this year, in a move which has been welcomed by some conservationists, but has also been met with significant pushback from members of the fishing industry who say it will wreck their livelihoods and destroy coastal communities.

The policy is a key part of the Bute House agreement, which brought the Scottish Greens into government with the SNP in 2021, and committed to designate at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs by 2026.

And despite all of the criticism that has been levelled at the Scottish government, it has stood firm on its position, insisting that HPMAs will help alleviate the impact of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Some 37% of Scotland’s seas are already designated as marine protected areas. But these have been criticised for not going far enough to protect marine life and habitats. Hence the drive to create HPMAs. Highly protected marine areas are a bit like a control sites in a science experiment, Dr Sian Rees says. All damaging human activity is removed from HPMAs, meaning that researchers can monitor the areas closely and see how nature recovers when it is left completely undisturbed.

But any policy that potentially restricts or bans fishing is going to be a hard sell: “From the fishers’ perspective, fishing is more than a job, it’s a way of life. That is a common expression in fishing communities,” says Dr Sara Coulthard. “[This policy] is asking people to make considerable changes to their lives, and it won’t just affect those who are actively fishing but it will also impact their families and the whole wider network of people involved in fishing.”

It is becoming increasingly evident that the only way to move this discussion on without alienating a significant group of people is to invest resources “in enabling fishers to become co-designers in a meaningful engagement process,” Coulthard says. “Fishing communities have to be seen as part of the solution, rather than as part of the problem.”

The one clear, positive part of all of this is that – ultimately – the government, the fisheries and the conservation groups all want the same thing: a sustainable fishery and healthy oceans. For that to happen there needs to be a realistic understanding and acceptance of the fact that fishing will have to be restricted in some areas, at least for a certain period of time. A strong engagement process could make it a lot easier for fishers to accept this. “They might not always agree with it, but they might be able to live with it as long as they can feel that they’ve been involved in a fair and transparent process,” Coulthard says. “That will go a long way to getting the buy-in that’s needed.”