SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes has pledged to scrap controversial plans to ban all forms of commercial and recreational fishing in significant stretches of Scotland’s waters.
Ms Forbes said she will instead commission a feasibility study into devolving marine protection and inshore fisheries powers to local authorities, if she is elected first minister next week.
A consultation is currently under way on Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which would see around 10% of fishing waters around Scotland closed.
Ms Forbes said regulations shaped by coastal communities would better reflect local needs and values, as she labelled the current proposals “an example of how not to do government”.
She said: “I would commission a feasibility study into giving councils more power to ensure marine protection designations are effectively implemented and enforced, and ideally consult on which of Marine Scotland’s statutory responsibilities could be more effectively delivered by local authorities.
“We have a range of expertise in coastal communities and I believe they are better placed to manage marine protection designations and inshore fisheries in a way that balances conservation objectives with socio-economic considerations.
“Local communities are often the ones most affected by changes in marine ecosystems, and they can provide valuable knowledge and insight into the health of local fish stocks and other marine resources, and a more tailored approach could also improve monitoring and enforcement.”
No EU country has implemented HPMAs, Ms Forbes said, adding there is “no evidence” to demonstrate they achieve their aims.
She argued the plans will have a disproportionate socio-economic impact on island and coastal communities, which she represents in her Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency.
Ms Forbes added: “There is concern from all corners of the fishing and processing sector, with potential implications reaching beyond fishing into small-scale and community-led renewables, harbour infrastructure, and marine tourism to name a few.
“I cannot understand why anyone, particularly when we are deliberately trying to stem depopulation in rural areas, thought it would be a good idea to take such a blanket approach.
“Across Government, we have to look at cumulative impact, rather than work in a silo. This current consultation illustrates the perils of poor engagement with communities and the rural economy.
“It’s an example of how not to do government. And it is also an example of what I want to do differently.
“Under my leadership, I will reset these relationships and work with coastal and island communities and their associated industries in an amicable and constructive fashion.”
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive Elspeth Macdonald said: “The SFF welcomes SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes’s opposition to the introduction of HPMAs, which would have a catastrophic effect on Scotland’s fisheries sector, and echoes her sentiment that the Scottish Government’s proposals are a good example of how not to do government.
“Our industry has a strong track record of supporting marine conservation initiatives when they’re done well, but these proposals lack rigour and substance, and are based on politics, not science.
“We hope the other candidates – and indeed all politicians – recognise the complete lack of any robust ecological case for these stringent conservation measures on top of Scotland’s existing MPA network, without any evident consideration of the cumulative ‘spatial squeeze’ alongside other developments including massive expansion of offshore wind farms.
“Collectively, fishing risks being excluded from as much as half of Scotland’s waters by 2050.
“Instead of letting their blue economy proposals be hijacked by the Greens to push fishing into the red, the Government needs to have much better dialogue with those whose livelihoods depend entirely on our marine resources.
“It is vital that policy making is evidence-based rather than just reflective of the views of those who may be passionate about the planet but often seem to have little understanding of reality or science.”
Open Seas, a charity which works to protect the marine environment, said that HPMAs should be “delivered as part of a bigger plan for the sustainable management of our seas” – noting there has been a legal duty on ministers to do this since 2010.
Responding to Ms Forbes’ comments, a spokesperson for the group said: “She is wrong that they should scrap marine conservation efforts.
“Rather than rip up existing plans, the Scottish Government should provide clear assurances that any measures will be implemented without prejudicing the resilience of our rural economy.”
The spokesperson suggested that “low impact fishing should be safeguarded by giving preferential access to the most sustainable parts of the industry”.
Open Seas added: “We still live in the shadow cast by a history of overfishing and Scotland’s seas remain some of the most heavily impacted in the world.
“Many communities around Scotland are well aware that action is needed to revive fish populations and kickstart environmental recovery, but scare-mongering remarks from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation remain wilfully blind to the good science in support of action and misrepresent the situation.”