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April 24th 2023

By Tavish Scott

As an island nation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, our coastal communities have written many chapters in Scotland's story.

In good times and bad, the people have hewn a living from the sea that has sustained our country for over a thousand years. This way of life must be protected.

Sadly, the greatest risk to that way of life comes from the Scottish Government's proposals to establish Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which threaten to damage this cultural and commercial backbone by implementing a dogmatic ban on marine activity in huge swathes of waters.

The idea, led by the anti-growth Scottish Green Party, has sparked alarm bells in the Highlands and islands, where there is a deep suspicion that narrow political interests are taking precedence over science and sustainable growth.

At Salmon Scotland, we share these grave concerns over the impact HPMAs will have on lives and livelihoods.

As part of the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens, 10 per cent of coastal waters around Scotland would be closed to human activity.

While some experienced voices, like Kate Forbes, have expressed opposition to the idea, it remains on the table following the renewal of the SNP-Green partnership.

Forbes hit the nail on the head when she said exclusion zones would 'sever a lifeline for survival' in these communities.

However, this sentiment is not exclusive to her, and many feel that the government is indifferent to the struggles of rural life.

The new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, faces mounting opposition from local authorities, fisheries, aquaculture and other marine users over the HPMAs proposal.

The depth of concern is reflected in a protest song titled 'The Clearances Again', written by fishermen Donald MacNeil and Angus MacPhail.

They see the proposal as a significant threat to rural life in Scotland, comparable to the notorious Highland Clearances.

It's an over-used comparison but on this topic, we agree. It is not a legacy any minister should seek to leave behind, least of all for short-term political gain.

Official figures show that population numbers in coastal and rural areas are already falling off a cliff. Do we really want to exacerbate this crisis?

The fewer opportunities people have to earn a living in these communities, the less likely they will be to stay there.

HPMAs could put thousands of jobs at risk and undermine the government's vision of a 'blue economy'.

The proposals run counter to other policies aimed at promoting food security and boosting international trade.

The HPMAs appear to be nothing more than a sop to keep the Greens in government, rather than a genuine attempt to improve the health of our seas.

The fact that there is no scientific justification for the proposals nor evidence they will work only adds insult to injury.

We support proposals that can improve Scotland's marine environment, but banning responsible sea use is not the answer.

One in three salmon farms already operate responsibly in marine protected areas (MPAs), which cover 37 per cent of Scottish waters.

Many of these MPAs were designated after the farms had already been established in the area.

We are yet to see any explanation as to why aquaculture cannot coexist within HPMAs as we already do with marine protected areas.

We know that in large parts of Scotland, the salmon farm at the end of the lane and the people it employs is what keep local schools and shops open.

We are part of a global success story that now delivers a whopping £760 million boost for the Scottish economy.

That includes a direct economic contribution of £303 million in Gross Value Added (GVA), up nearly a fifth on pre-pandemic levels, with the supply chain further supporting 10,000 jobs in every part of Scotland.

Scotland's salmon farmers produce one of the healthiest foods we can eat, with a single portion providing more than 70 per cent of a person's daily vitamin D needs. That's just one reason why aquaculture has the potential to feed the world.

Scottish salmon is the best in the world, and our farming companies stand ready to make the investment that Scotland so desperately needs as the economic storm clouds gather.

If the government's proposals force salmon farmers out of marine areas, business will lose confidence and turn their attention to our Scandinavian competitors - particularly Iceland which is looking for a five-fold increase in their aquaculture sector over the next decade.

That means Scotland losing out on good, well-paid jobs and investment.

This could have a knock-on effect on the wider economy, as businesses that rely on the sector, such as restaurants and food retailers, are forced to look abroad for their supply.

Polling shows Scottish salmon is widely supported in our farming regions with a clear majority in favour of salmon farming in their local communities.

Residents recognise that salmon farms provide jobs for local people, contribute to the local economy, and produce a high-quality product that Scotland can be proud of.

The quality of what we produce is already internationally recognised, and the cold, clear waters off our coasts ensure that our fish are unrivalled.

The Scottish Government needs to prioritise evidence-based policies that protect both the environment and the livelihoods of hardworking Scots.

We need a thorough independent review of how science has been used to establish the policy and a balanced consideration of all the pressures on the marine environment.

The current HPMAs proposal is ill-advised, ill-considered, and ill-judged. It risks irreparable harm to our coastal communities and the Scottish economy.

The Edinburgh administration must base its decisions on evidence, science, and facts - not perception, politics and pandering to campaign groups that are funded to attack the sector.

We need to be doing everything we can to support sustainable business growth, not putting up unnecessary barriers that will only lead to economic decline.

The Scottish Government has long been supportive of farm-raised salmon, and we want that positive relationship to continue.

Rather than implementing a blanket ban, it should work with Scotland's fishermen and salmon farmers to promote the responsible use of our marine resources.

Scottish salmon and Scottish seafood is the best in the world, but HPMAs risk this global success story.

Humza Yousaf has recognised the dangers. He now says no policy will be implemented when a community is against it.

All five local authorities in the Highlands and islands are opposed to HPMAs; that looks a pretty clear definition of community opposition.

Ministers need to change course before it's too late.

Tavish Scott is chief executive of Salmon Scotland, the trade body for Scotland's farm-raised salmon sector.
This article first appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail, Thursday 27 April 2023.