IMAGINE the Scottish Government might effectively close one of the biggest industries in your area and deter renewable energy companies from siting nearby. Imagine being asked your opinion without knowing exactly where and when the shutdown might occur, which businesses could close and whether compensation is on offer.

Imagine finding you can’t talk to anyone in government and neither the Scottish Greens who back the move nor the SNP minister applying it will come to discuss things with you – because that’s not allowed during a consultation.

Even though Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will sweep aside the fishing traditions of generations – apparently, without compensation.

Why not? Such details can’t be discussed during a consultation.

Even though farmers get paid for set aside, crofters get paid to delay hay-making for corncrakes and landowners get paid not to cut down trees.

Imagine that the imposition of HPMAs has been objected by everyone you know. But is still likely to go through, because that’s the way “partnership” works in top-down, centralised Scotland.

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Imagine waiting to hear someone in Edinburgh insist the consultation actually shows considerable island support – when you know there is none. Imagine being encouraged to attend a webinar – where locals will be on mute – or to email over questions. Naturally, though there may be a month’s delay in replying.

Civil servants are busy rolling out the recently passed Islands (Scotland) Act, which will “create the right environment for sustainable growth and empowered communities” and ensure islanders “receive fair and equitable treatment [with] policy, strategy or service outcomes tailored to their unique circumstances”.


Imagine deciding to lobby MSPs, only to realise you’ll struggle to get onto a functioning west coast ferry. But the CalMac ferry situation is not connected to the HPMA consultation and officials cannot guarantee meetings even if islanders do travel to Edinburgh. They are sorry.

Imagine hearing your situation discussed by people who live in distant cities.

A highly protected marine conservation area in the Outer Hebrides. What a brilliant idea. Could there be any better place to close fisheries and let the aquatic world recover? How could islanders be so selfish and short-sighted to put their own incomes ahead of restoring the world’s oceans? Everyone on the mainland faces job losses – besides, how many islanders still fish themselves?

Imagine all of this and feeling so furious and powerless, you’re ready to stop voting SNP.

And perhaps for one big reason not listed above. You actually believe in marine conservation. You know tougher protection is right.

But HPMAs, the “no-info” consultation and the expectation of a draconian regime with serious ­micro-management really rankles.

Granted, all of the above is speculation – but that’s what happens when distant authorities don’t talk to locals and share control. So HPMAs have turned islanders and conservationists into enemies when it didn’t need to be that way.

The Bute House Agreement saw the Scottish Government and Scottish Greens agree to designate at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as HPMAs by 2026, “protecting all elements of the marine ecosystem”, by prohibiting or limiting human activities.

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Commercial and recreational fishing will not be permitted, nor any form of aquaculture, oil and gas, or renewables operations. Swimming, diving and recreational boating may be permitted.

In short, local exclusion and no guaranteed compensation. That’s how marine protection looks set to work here.

But it’s not how successful marine protection works elsewhere across the world.

Siddarth Shrikanth spoke last week at the Edinburgh Science Festival about his book, The Case For Nature, which argues that a world is finally focusing on the race to net zero, is totally overlooking the associated but separate biodiversity crisis.

One astonishing statistic is that 96% of mammal biomass on the planet is now accounted for by us and our livestock. In the Stone Age that figure was 2%.

“We have driven the loss of a third of global forests and with them, an ark’s worth of species,” writes Shrikanth.

Meanwhile, 90% of global fish stocks are overexploited or depleted, through agricultural run-off, sewage spills, micro-plastics and the destruction of marine habitats by trawler nets dragging the sea floor.

And that’s not just a wee shame – it’s harming the ability of nature to come to our rescue by averting catastrophic climate change.

In a jaw-dropping Science Festival talk, French naturalist Vincent Doumeizel explained that if 9% of the world’s oceans were properly managed to produce seaweed they could absorb more greenhouse gas than we currently emit, since seaweed absorbs three times more than a hectare of Amazon rainforest, and could provide crucial protein to supplement our diets.

Meanwhile, Shrikanth (no slouch on the numbers front as a former FT journalist and KPMG consultant) calculates that land-based nature restored could capture a third of global emissions by 2030. But that means encouraging nature’s full biodiversity everywhere, not just in “fortress conservation” projects and exotic, distant locations.

Shrikanth quotes successful examples of biodiversity restoration around the world – which all feature local control and compensation.

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In Colombia, a scheme called Vida Manglar (Mangrove Life) has restored the mangrove forests of Cispata, involving local communities, the government, NGOs, the coastal research agency and tech giant Apple.

Scientists have found that 80% of the natural carbon in the wetland was underground so that restoring and protecting the Cispata wetlands would remove a million tonnes of atmospheric CO2 over 30 years.

A transparent benefit-sharing scheme was put in place at the start of the project and local communities agreed to a rotational system of sustainable logging so that each block had a decade to recover.

As Shrikanth observes: “Zero logging would be ideal for the ecosystem but preserving community rights to low impact use is one important element of sustainable carbon projects – even if less is saved as a result.”

Palau is an archipelago of over 500 islands, in the Pacific Ocean with a population slightly smaller than Lewis and Harris.

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In 2009, this tiny Pacific micro-state designated the world’s first shark sanctuary banning all commercial shark fishing from its waters. In 2020 it went further, prohibiting all fishing and mining in 80% of its waters with the remaining 20% reserved for locals only.

The result was the sixth-largest marine protected area in the world. Fish populations have re-bounded and spilled over to the zones for fishing is allowed as experts predicted. Healthy reefs have formed the basis for a dive tourism economy, with jobs for locals.

The same happened in Fiji where villagers relinquished fishing rights in a marine protection zone in exchange for a levy paid to the community and new jobs with diving operators. Fish populations nearby have also grown with fishermen relocating.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the tiny Lamlash Bay No-Take Zone, off Arran, is a world-renowned success story, driven by the Community Of Arran Seabed Trust (COAST), which formed to protect Arran’s local marine environment after intense bottom-trawling and dredging. Lamlash shows that marine protection zones can work, and communities can thrive alongside them when they shape the process.

Of course, the First Minister may end up suspending the current HPMA proposals. But similar plans would return. Next time ministers must learn from best practice, permit low-impact local fishing, and offshore turbines (since there’s copious evidence reefs form around them) and crucially put islanders in the marine driving seat right from the outset.