Our initial consultation on highly protected marine areas closed on Monday, and it is only right that we take some time to carefully consider all the responses—there has been a substantial number of responses—before we set out our next steps, especially given the strength of views that have been expressed on the issue.
Our seas must remain a source of prosperity for the nation, especially in remote coastal and island communities. It is vital that those communities help to shape the creation of HPMAs, which is why we chose to consult very early on in the process. My officials have held more than 40 meetings relating to the process, and my colleague Màiri McAllan will continue to engage directly with coastal and island communities before we decide on our next steps together.
I make it clear that no sites have been selected. That will not begin until we have considered the feedback from the consultation and the engagement process is complete. We are determined to ensure that as many voices as possible are heard in the process.
We all acknowledge the need to protect our marine environment, but the HPMA proposals will devastate coastal communities—the fishing sector, in particular—and threaten their very way of life. It is no wonder that the policy has been compared with the clearances—people cleared off the land and cleared off the sea.
Given the anger that the policy has caused and the widespread opposition to the plans, including from many in the First Minister’s own party, and given that he wants to be First Minister for the whole country, will he now scrap the plans once and for all and start again?
The point is that there are no plans yet. There is a consultation, but we do not yet have set sites or set criteria. We are at a very early stage—an inception stage—in which we want to work with our coastal, island and fishing communities. I believe that, ultimately, there is agreement on the outcome. The outcome that we all want is a sustainable marine environment. We want our fishing industry and our seas to be sustainable for the future. We want the industry to continue. However, that can happen only if the marine environment is sustainable. I believe that there is agreement on that.
Of course, our fishing, island and coastal communities have often been at the forefront of the effort on sustainability, so we want to work with them and engage with them.
All that said, I reiterate what I said on Tuesday: this Government will not steamroll through or impose on any community a policy that it is vehemently opposed to. My colleague Màiri McAllan will engage with those island and coastal communities, and we will analyse their responses very carefully. I say to all those who have expressed their opposition to highly protected marine areas that we are willing to engage and to listen. Let us hope that we get to the agreed outcomes together.
Does the First Minister agree that the no-take zone in Lamlash bay has had no adverse impact whatsoever and, indeed, has shown that conservation can help to revitalise our fishing sector, and that identifying potential highly protected marine area sites would allow more effective direct engagement to take place with concerned fishers and communities?
That is absolutely right. Far from having any adverse impact, the Lamlash bay no-take zone has shown us the benefit for the marine environment and the people who rely on it. The example of Lamlash bay is a very good one—it was the community that wanted the no-take zone to be established. That goes to the central point, which is that we will work with communities to get to the outcome that I hope that we all agree on, which is having a sustainable marine environment.
Based on studies that were co-ordinated by the community group at Lamlash bay, it has been noted that, since protection was established, commercially important species such as the king scallop and the European lobster have increased in size, age and density. The 2008 designation of the Lamlash bay no-take zone off the coast of Arran was a result of campaigning by the local community, and I think that that is a good model for us as we take forward our work on highly protected marine areas.
Earlier this week, Orkney Islands Council joined its counterparts in Shetland and the Western Isles in voicing the strongest possible opposition to the Government’s plans for highly protected marine areas, given their potential impact on island communities.
On the same day, the First Minister announced welcome, if long-overdue, U-turns on his deposit return scheme and alcohol advertising sanctions. I therefore urge him not to spend months defending the indefensible and to confirm, in the light of the significant and growing opposition in coastal and island communities, that his Government will now rethink its plans to arbitrarily designate 10 per cent of Scottish waters as HPMAs by 2026.
Liam McArthur will be well aware that, when I was Minister for Transport and the Islands, I brought forward island proofing, which is something I believe into my very core. Therefore, we will not impose upon any community, island or otherwise, a policy that it vehemently opposes.
We will analyse the consultation responses and agree on the outcomes. I think that there is general broad agreement on the outcomes. We want to have a sustainable marine environment and a fishing sector that is sustainable in the long term and protecting our biodiversity helps us with that outcome.
I will continue engaging personally, as will Màiri McAllan, who will, no doubt, travel across the country, including to Orkney and Shetland, to meet with those who have expressed concerns. I hope that, together, we can get to a place where we all agree on the outcome and can move forward to protect our marine environment and make it more sustainable for the future.