Sharing our blue space: Sea Scotland 2024 summary

June 12th, 2024 by

Deborah Long, Scottish Environment LINK Chief Officer retraces Sea Scotland 2024, which was held on 3rd and 4th June at Stirling Court Hotel.

Sea Scotland 2024 kicked off with our morning youth event, Making waves: Sea Scotland Youth Voices. An enthusiastic, knowledgeable and thoughtful group of 15 young people came together to find out more about how to make waves at conferences like this one. They are all starting their marine career, or anticipating one, and are keen to get involved. We were pleased that some of them were able to stay for the entire conference and practice their new knowledge and skills.

a group posing for a photo in front of a whiteboard

This year’s conference explored “Sharing our blue space”. Catherine Gemmell, Marine Conservation Society, started us off with her insightful and inspiring keynote assessment of what it means to share our blue space. We followed on with an expert panel discussion around marine policy. Speakers looked at where we are in marine policy, expressed all our frustration at the slow rate of progress but also stressed the absolute need to keep going. They outlined the challenges we face, and the actions needed, including public and private investment, using SMEEF as a current model for this. Audience questions explored how we can make more and speedier progress, and what the reality of change looks like and needs to achieve.

Later in the afternoon, delegates chose one of 3 sessions: an “Industry with Ambition” session looked at sustainability and the role of innovation in ecosystem restoration and supporting strong communities. The Marine Just Transition workshop underlined the fundamental need for a just transition and offered hope as well as wider scope for fair and just change. The nature restoration session looked at the challenges and opportunities in restoration and concluded that we need to do much more to meet our nature restoration goals.

Day 2 of the conference started with a message from the Cabinet Secretary. This helpfully reiterated her and the Government’s commitment to the nature and climate goals as well as outlining Government ambitions for Scotland’s blue space. The audience poll afterwards reflected the poor condition today of Scotland’s’ seas but also contained optimism for the future.

a group of people sitting at a table in front of a screen

The morning expert panel session tackled marine planning. Speakers looked at Government plans for the National Marine Plan 2; the importance of coastal literacy and the potential of community-led partnership building with members of the public, schools and industry. The power of community-led action was illustrated through the community-led State of the Coast  for Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. Speakers also looked at what the future of marine planning could and should look like, especially related to offshore wind and how marine planning works for mobile species, like minke whales. Audience questions focussed on the speed of change already happening in Scotland’s marine environment and the need for policy to catch up with the speed of those changes. Comments underlined how we cannot afford to linger any longer. The audience was also interested in coherence and coordination for National Marine Plan 2, particularly the need to learn lessons from National Marine Plan 1, and to ensure it delivers community-informed decision-making.  

The three afternoon workshops looked at managing diverse views and perceptions and how we can use our own feelings to help us understand others; using the community voice method in the Oceans of value project and using art for activism: how visualising the key issues in new ways engages more people, and builds creative new collaborations.

a conference room with groups of people sitting round tables listening to a presentation

If I was to sum up the key points from our two days:

  1. The need for speed: we’ve been talking about the need for protection and effective spatial planning for 20 years now. In that time, our marine environment has changed and deteriorated while becoming more pressured. While Scottish Government ambition remains high, delivery is far too slow. This is challenging but because ecological changes are already happening, we can’t afford to wait any longer to tackle it.
  2. A Just Transition: one of our panellists said: Healthy, happy communities [should be] able to have a good life and protect their environment at the same time. Marine has long been an obvious gap in the Government’s Just Transition work, and it is very welcome to see the start of direct work on it. Some common themes of this year’s Sea Scotland echo themes in the visits the Just Transition Commission are making:
    • we need to learn the lessons of the past and avoid past mistakes that led to severe and ongoing injustices;
    • we need professionally facilitated conversations;
    • we need better communication and real engagement with local communities, to avoid the pervasive ‘consultation overload’;
    • we need to have the hard conversations about what has to change and who has to pay
    • and finally, we need to hear all voices.

There are 5 F’s that I took from the conference:

First F is for Food. It breaks the ice, brings people together and is the start of productive conversation

Second F is for Films: these inspire and communicate with a very wide audience

Third F is for Feelings: if we can be brave enough to harness the power of feelings, our own feelings help us understand our own perspectives as well as understand others and that mutual understanding builds better joint outcomes.

Fourth F is for Finding new ways; art is a great way to express complex and sometimes depressing environmental issues. But art visualises the issues we face in the marine environment in new and surprising ways, which helps us build understanding and support for action.

Our shared blue space depends on us all for its Future. If you want to have your voice heard, particularly around protecting and restoring our marine environment for future generation, sign our petition to tell the Government to give Scotland’s network of Marine Protected Areas real protection.

Sea Scotland cannot happen without our sponsors: thank you to Howell Marine Consulting, Stromar, Naturescot, WWF Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Marine Conservation Society.

The success of the conference is thanks to the Sea Scotland Steering group and LINK’s Marine Policy and Engagement Officers, Fanny and Esther.

Mind the MPA gap: Scotland still has a long way to go to protect its marine treasures

June 5th, 2024 by

Scotland’s stunning coastline and rich marine biodiversity are celebrated worldwide. To better protect these fragile ecosystems, the Scottish Government has established a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). However, a new research report has recently shed light on the pressing need for greater protection within this network. In this blog post, we’ll delve into this research and its implications for Scotland’s marine environment.

Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas

Scotland’s MPAs are designated areas where specific conservation objectives aim to safeguard the diverse range of species and habitats within their boundaries. These areas are designed to play a pivotal role in conserving and restoring marine biodiversity, offering havens for numerous species, from seals and seabirds to rare fish and invertebrates, and providing resilient habitats that can withstand the impacts of a changing climate.

Scotland has an extensive existing network of MPAs, with a new suite of MPAs for nature conservation created in 2014. However, most still allow damaging forms of fishing, as the Scottish Government process to put fishing restrictions in place is on-going.

The Research Findings

Recent scientific research, conducted by James Harrison, Professor of Environmental Law at the University of Edinburgh, has unveiled sobering findings regarding the effectiveness of Scotland’s MPA network, providing no less than 28 recommendations to improve the current approach. The research underscores that current protection measures in place are not adequately safeguarding these critical marine habitats and Scotland’s MPA network currently falls short of international targets and best practice.

The Convention on Biological Diversity – an international treaty to which the UK is a party – emphasises the importance of including a mixture of MPAs that are strictly protected and those that allow some human activities at sustainable levels to take place. However, a significant portion of MPAs lack effective protection from the most damaging activities. These were identified in Scotland’s Marine Assessment (2020) as the impacts of climate change and commercial bottom-towed fishing activities.  Without the long-awaited restrictions for fishing activities within MPAs, habitat degradation will continue to harm the ecosystems within MPAs, emphasizing the need for more stringent protection and enforcement.

The report further highlights shortcomings in the monitoring and enforcement of Scotland’s MPA network and the need for a comprehensive marine conservation strategy for Scotland, of which the MPA network would be a key part.

Climate change is affecting Scotland’s marine environments, posing additional challenges to the resilience of MPAs and coastal communities. Rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification threaten the very ecosystems these areas were established to protect. Healthier ecosystems will be more resilient to the effects of climate change and will help to ensure resource availability for current and future generations. Empowering coastal communities by increasing their role in MPA management is crucial to ensure their long-term success.

What needs to happen next

These research findings emphasize the urgent need for action to enhance protection within Scotland’s MPA network. Policymakers must revise and fortify the legal framework governing MPAs, bringing Scotland in line with international best practice, and ensuring more robust enforcement mechanisms. Adequate funding and resources are paramount for effective MPA management, including enhanced monitoring, research, and community inclusion efforts. Against the backdrop of the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration, and targets to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030, this report underlines just how much needs to be done in the next few years. The highest priority is to get measures in place to manage the impact of fishing activities on Scottish MPAs – we’re currently running a petition calling on the Scottish Government to do this without further delay.


Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas are critical sanctuaries for marine life, fisheries, and climate resilience. However, the recent research underscores the pressing need to strengthen their protection. By revising legal frameworks, allocating more resources, addressing climate resilience, and involving local communities, we can ensure these precious marine ecosystems thrive and continue to benefit both Scotland’s natural heritage and its people. It’s time to act decisively to protect and preserve Scotland’s marine treasures for generations to come.

Over 2,500 people have signed our petition calling on the Scottish government to put tailored fisheries restrictions in place across Scotland’s marine protected areas by the end of 2025 – add your voice.

Image credit: Cath Bain, Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Scotland’s marine protected areas need real protection

February 21st, 2024 by

Scotland’s seas are renowned for their rich biodiversity. From fish to birds, marine mammals to invertebrates, they are home to thousands of fantastic species of plants and animals. They are loved by communities, are a key component of Scotland’s cultural heritage and identity, as well as a vital resource for those who rely on marine industries like fishing and wildlife tourism.

But scientific evidence makes it clear that Scotland’s marine environment has been in decline for some time. Most of our seabed is in poor condition, with some vital habitats, like seagrass and flame shell beds, covering just a tiny fraction of their former areas. Seabird species are also in steep decline. The overall abundance of 11 seabird species in Scotland went down by a significant average of 49% since 1986, putting Scotland’s seabird health now below the rest of the UK.

We all want our seas to thrive and be resilient in the face of the intertwined climate and nature crises. The livelihood and wellbeing of coastal communities depends on a healthy marine environment. Preserving Scotland’s marine ecosystems, helping them recover, and safeguarding them for future generations is therefore a crucial task. Maintaining and enhancing Scotland’s marine environment is also an obligation under both our international commitments and domestic law.[1]

Image: Fanny Royanez

What are marine protected areas, and why do they matter?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are designated zones within the ocean set aside for long-term conservation objectives. They come in various forms worldwide, each offering different levels of protection and management strategies.

Scientific evidence from across the globe shows that MPAs are a proven tool to halt and reverse the decline of biodiversity, such as Fish Replenishment Areas in Hawai’i, as well as fighting climate change, such as measures detailed in the Great Barrier Reef Blueprint for Climate Resilience and Adaptation. When thoughtfully planned with marine communities, and effectively managed, MPAs become essential in addressing our impact on the marine environment. They can help marine species and habitats to recover, and safeguard established ecosystems from further degradation.

MPAs are a long-term investment. They work to ensure that the species and habitats that make up our complex marine ecosystems are adequately protected, so that future generations can continue to benefit from what our seas provide us with – commercial fish and shellfish, renewable sources of energy, climate regulation, natural coastal defence, and enjoyment, recreation and increased wellbeing across society.

However, designating a site as an MPA does not automatically mean it is protected[2]. Those responsible for MPAs must assess what changes to human activities might be needed within the site to reduce pressure on vulnerable species and habitats and give them the best possible chance to thrive. This might mean some activities have to be restricted or reduced in certain areas,  at certain times of the year, or, in the case of higher risk activities, on a permanent basis. The Great Barrier Reef Zoning Plan is considered a successful example of where there is a mixed management approach that supports multiple human uses of the area. The success of a MPA in achieving its conservation goals is highly dependent on the management measures implemented to protect the site.

Scotland’s marine protected areas: management measures are eight years overdue

Black guillemot Cepphus grylle, pair showing typical courtship display, Oban, Scotland, UK, June

Image: Ben Andrew

The Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 sets out a duty for Scottish Ministers to protect and enhance the marine environment. Both the Marine and Coastal Access Act (2009) and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 provide the Scottish government with the power and duty to create a network of MPAs.

In 2014, 30 nature conservation MPAs were created with the objective of helping protect nationally important species and habitats – Priority Marine Features (PMFs).  Designating the sites was only the first step, as management measures to restrict certain marine activities including commercial fishing were to be delivered by 2016.

Fisheries restrictions were adopted in a handful of inshore MPAs (within 12 nautical miles of the coast) in 2016, but the deadline to implement restrictions across the whole network by 2016 was missed. The measures that have been introduced in the most vulnerable inshore sites prohibit damaging fishing methods in less than 1% of the historically fished inshore area[3]. A subsequent deadline of 2020 was also missed. A commitment from the Scottish government in the 2021 Bute House Agreement to complete the MPA network and deliver the long-awaited management measures by 2024 has also not been met, leaving our MPAs without real protection from the most damaging forms of fishing. Repeatedly missing these deadlines put at risk the Scottish Government’s ambition to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.

It’s important to note here that these measures are not related to the proposals for ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’ (HPMAs) that were mooted by the Scottish government in 2021 and consulted on in 2023. The appropriate management of our MPA network has been on the table for 10 years and has been subject to extensive discussion with stakeholders and local communities. HPMAs, as consulted in 2023, will not be progressed by the Scottish Government (although areas of consensus amongst stakeholders were identified during the consultation which will be helpful for future developments.

The Scottish government’s own data has repeatedly underscored the urgent need to implement management measures for the most damaging forms of fishing. Most recently, its Scottish Marine Assessment 2020 identified fishing activities that sweep across large sections of the seabed (‘bottom-towed mobile’ fishing) and ‘pelagic fishing’ (which refers to the water area between the surface and seabed) as the key pressures facing marine biodiversity, alongside climate change. Yet these forms of fishing are allowed to continue in all but a few of our MPAs.

In short, despite covering 37% of Scotland’s seas, the majority of the MPA network continues to exist in name only without real protection implemented. While fisheries restrictions are delayed, our marine ecosystems, especially seabed habitats, will continue to decline.

Image: NatureScot

Restrictions tailored to species and habitats

NatureScot provided advice to the Scottish government in 2014 on what types of fishing activities would need to be removed or limited in each MPA in order for the relevant species and habitats to be properly protected. The measures would vary for each site and be tailored based on risk to adequately protect the marine wildlife the sites contain. Depending on the MPA, the measures would mean restricting certain types of fishing, but allowing others that have little or no impact on the species and habitats identified.

The Scottish government ran a series of consultations and workshops with marine users and industries to consult on and deliver the management measures. Its proposals were confined to protecting small areas of priority species and habitats that remained in good condition despite decades of industrial activity. Scottish Environment LINK called for a more holistic approach to these management proposals, taking into account how the priority species and habitats are connected as part of the ecosystem, rather than just considering them on their own.

Today, the Scottish MPA network is composed of 233 sites designated for nature conservation purposes. But 10 years after their creation, only a minority of sites have fisheries management measures in place.

This cannot go on. The Scottish government must end the delays and act now to take this crucial step in helping our seas recover.

More is needed to help our seas recover

Delivering an effective network of MPAs is the bare minimum if Scotland wants to halt and reverse the decline of our marine biodiversity. Without these tailored management measures, MPAs cannot reach their conservation objectives.

However, the Scottish government’s approach through MPAs is confined to protecting the small areas of our seas that remain in good condition. If we are to help our seas recover, implementing MPA management measures is only the first step.

MPAs must be part of a broader ecosystem-based approach to tackle the ocean emergency effectively. Urgent action across policy areas is needed to facilitate species and habitat recovery and ensure that marine ecosystems can function. This means implementing a more holistic approach to the management of fisheries, establishing a new national marine plan centred on ocean recovery, and addressing cumulative impacts on the marine environment.

It is urgent we ensure our marine ecosystems can provide the life-sustaining benefits that our marine industries and coastal communities rely on, for generations to come.

Sign the petition calling on the Scottish government to put tailored fisheries restrictions in place across Scotland’s marine protected areas by the end of 2025.

By Fanny Royanez, Marine Policy and Engagement Officer

[1] Scotland is obligated to maintain and enhance its marine environment under international commitments such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), OSPAR Northeast Atlantic strategy, and delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is also a legal requirement under national legislation such as the UK Marine Strategy Regulations, the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

[2] Langton, R., Stirling, D.A., Boulcott, P. and Wright, P.J., 2020. Are MPAs effective in removing fishing pressure from benthic species and habitats?. Biological Conservation, 247, p.108511.

[3]Langton, R., Stirling, D.A., Boulcott, P. and Wright, P.J., 2020. Are MPAs effective in removing fishing pressure from benthic species and habitats?. Biological Conservation, 247, p.108511

Ocean recovery zones are vital to restoring our seas to health

July 25th, 2023 by

By Fanny Royanez, Marine Policy and Engagement Officer

Scotland’s seas are amazing, and they matter to us all. Many people will be spending time on Scotland’s coasts this summer – rain or shine. Even just a day trip to the beach can feel like a little holiday, refreshing and replenishing us.

That’s not all, of course. As anyone who watched the ocean episode of David Attenborough’s Wild Isles series will know, our seas are home to the most fantastic array of wildlife, much of which is hidden deep beneath the waves. They’re of huge importance for the climate too, as ocean ecosystems can store even more carbon than those on land.

Our seas are a vital resource, central to the lives of communities that rely on marine industries like fishing and wildlife tourism. And they are a source of food.

We all want Scotland’s seas to be healthy and teeming with life. But the threats facing our seas are immense, and we need to act fast to help them recover. 

Why do we need to restore our seas to health?

The scientific evidence makes it clear that Scotland’s marine species and habitats are in serious decline. Most of our seabed is in poor condition, with some habitats, like seagrass and flame shell beds, covering just a tiny fraction of their former areas.

Five million seabirds breed around our coastline every year, but many species are in steep decline due to climate change, unsustainable fisheries, disease, pollution and the impact of invasive non-native species. 

Recent bird flu outbreaks have made things worse. It’s estimated that up to 90% of some great skua breeding populations may have been lost in Shetland’s Hermaness Nature Reserve, for example. Great skuas – or ‘bonxies’ as they are also known – are top predators, and this level of loss will have a dramatic impact on vulnerable marine ecosystems. 

The effects of climate change are also making themselves felt. Scotland’s seas have experienced extreme and unprecedented heatwaves this summer, with water temperatures up to 4°C above normal in some places. Marine heatwaves pose a serious threat to wildlife, risking high levels of mortality and loss of breeding grounds. They have led to concern for industries such as salmon farming that rely on healthy seas.

Image: Wynand van Poortvliet, Unsplash

Ocean recovery zones

So what can we do to protect our seas and help them recover?

Tackling climate change is part of the answer. But caring for our seas and managing them well will also require a number of carefully planned and interlinked measures. Experience worldwide shows that strictly protecting certain defined and limited areas from damaging industrial activity is a key piece of the jigsaw. 

Strictly protected areas provide dedicated havens for vulnerable and depleted marine life to recover. They become, in effect, ocean recovery zones. As marine animals and plants are able to grow larger and live longer, they reproduce more, and their increasing populations can overflow into surrounding waters. This helps marine life recover both within and beyond the strictly protected area. And these ecological benefits in turn support marine industries, including fishing and tourism.

Internationally agreed standards, including the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030, call for at least 10% of the ocean to be strictly protected to enable large-scale ecosystem recovery. Currently, less than 1% of Scotland’s seas are strictly protected from damaging human activities. 

Scottish Government proposals

The severe threats facing our ocean, and the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of strictly protected areas, led the Scottish Government to release proposals earlier this year to create ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’ (HPMAs) in 10% of Scotland’s seas. These areas would have been given the strongest possible form of protection.

The proposals didn’t include any suggested sites for HPMAs. In part due to the uncertainty involved, HPMAs became a controversial topic, with many members of Scotland’s coastal and island communities in particular expressing concern that restrictions on fishing would damage the sustainability of areas dependent on the industry.

In June, the Scottish Government announced, ‘the proposal as consulted on will not be progressed. That means that we will no longer seek to implement HPMAs across 10 per cent of Scotland’s seas by 2026.’ However, Cabinet Secretary Mairi McAllan confirmed that the Scottish Government remains ‘firmly committed’ to ‘enhancing marine protection’, recognising the EU target of strictly protecting at least 10% of its seas by 2030. She also stated her commitment to ensuring that ‘communities across Scotland are central to the process’, and emphasised the role of coastal and island communities in shaping future policy on Scotland’s seas.

At Scottish Environment LINK, we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to build greater consensus and its stress on the need to deliver on ecological outcomes. But we’re deeply concerned that delaying the action needed to allow our seas to recover will lead to their further decline, making the task of restoring them to health much harder and slower. 

Image: Longspined sea-scorpion Taurulus bubalis on maerl bed, South-west Loch Gairloch. Graham Saunders, Nature Scot.

Communities at the heart of ocean recovery

Community involvement will indeed be key. While healthy seas are vitally important for all of us, they play a particularly central role in the lives of Scotland’s coastal and island communities. 

It’s crucial that measures to protect our seas, including strictly protected ocean recovery zones, are designed collaboratively, with these communities engaged at the heart of the process. Our best chance of restoring our seas to health will come from communities, environmental organisations, fishers and other marine industries working together with government. 

That’s why in March we and other organisations wrote to the Scottish Government calling for improved stakeholder participation along with independent scientific scrutiny of its proposals for marine protection.

One of the only parts of Scotland’s sea that already has strict protection, in north Lamlash Bay off the isle of Arran, has protected status brought about through pressure and organising by local people, showing the importance of community involvement. Since the Lamlash Bay ‘no take zone’ was established, the area has seen dramatic ecological improvement. We need to see this success replicated around Scotland’s coast.

Everyone in Scotland wants to see our seas in a better condition, and creating ocean recovery zones will be a crucial step to restoring our ocean biodiversity.

Scottish Environment LINK members are calling on the Scottish Government to honour its commitment to set Scotland’s seas on the path to recovery by 2030, and create strictly protected ocean recovery zones in 10% of Scotland’s seas. 

The Scottish Government is expected to develop new proposals this autumn for enhancing our marine environment, and we’re looking forward to contributing to this urgent work. Now is the time to work together to find transformative ways to help restore our amazing seas to health.

Featured image: Dead man’s fingers and anemones below the kelp zone in Loch nam Madadh, Credits to Nature Scot (Photographer: George Stoyle)

Evidence Base Briefing on HPMAs

May 2nd, 2023 by


There is a very strong global evidence base showing that Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) have a positive impact ecologically and can support the fishing industry. HPMAs, also known as marine reserves or no take zones, act as nurseries and refuges and as such benefit marine species and habitats both within the protected area and outside them.

Evidence from across the world shows that, on average, twice as much total fish biomass and fish density is found in the protected area than outside. These benefits can happen quickly, within a few years of protection, and can have a ‘spillover’ effect into surrounding waters.

To maximise both conservation and socio-economic benefits, HPMAs should be bordered by buffer zones to benefit low impact fishers. With such zones HPMAs can benefit sustainable fishing, and those engaged in it, while at the same time helping build up fish and other marine species populations across the wider sea and for future generations.

However, success will depend upon a collaborative approach with all stakeholders, including local communities, fully involved and engaged with support, access to advice and scientific evidence and independent scrutiny. The Scottish Government’s Just Transition outcomes are key in delivering success for coastal and island communities as well as Scotland’s marine biodiversity.


The marine environment is one of Scotland’s greatest assets and a vital resource for communities who rely on marine activities like fishing and wildlife tourism. However, evidence shows a continuing decline of our marine ecosystems, impairing their ability to provide the life-sustaining benefits we all depend on.

In the Bute House Agreement, the Scottish Government committed to designate at least 10% of our seas as “Highly Protected Marine Areas” (HPMAs). HPMAs are areas of the sea that are placed under strict protection to support ecosystem recovery and protect against climate change. This is in line with internationally agreed standards for nature recovery and resilience (e.g. Global Biodiversity Framework Target 3), and follows the EU’s own 10% target for strict protection.

The effects of strict protection at sea have been widely documented globally, and growing evidence highlights the ecological and socioeconomic benefits of these marine reserves or no-take zones. The following briefing provides a non-exhaustive summary of the science available regarding HPMAs in the world.

Ecological benefits within HPMAs

Various HPMAs can be found worldwide, and research demonstrates their benefits on marine life within and outside their boundaries. The MPA guide helpfully provides a map of 226 MPAs, 114 of which are equivalent to the proposed Scottish HPMAs.1 HPMAs are equivalent to “marine reserves”or “no take zones” and have been abundantly studied across the world, in both tropical and temperate waters. Hundreds of surveys, often summarised in global or regional studies, show that protecting the marine environment from damaging activities leads to a sharp increase in abundance, average body size and biomass of marine species.2

A 2019 synthesis of current scientific evidence shows that HPMAs can provide greater benefits than lighter forms of protection. Placing areas of the sea under strict protection allows marine species to recover, by providing them a refuge to grow, age and reproduce. In their analysis of 24 no-take zones in the highly pressurised Mediterranean Sea, Giakoumi et al. (2017), demonstrated that high levels of protection have significant ecological benefits for fish biomass and equally positive effects for fisheries’ target species.3 The total fish biomass and density were on average twice as much in fully protected areas than outside. The study also highlighted that there was no difference in total fish biomass between partially protected and unprotected areas.

Ecological benefits can be observed within no-take zones only a few years after their creation, with increase in populations within two to five years.4 The impressive case of the Cabo Pulmo protected areas, in the Gulf of California, showed an almost five-fold increase of the fish biomass only a decade after its creation. Closer to home, research carried out in the small no take zone in north Lamlash Bay since 2010 shows a dramatic improvement – measured biodiversity has increased by 50%, while the populations of commercially important species are 2-3 times higher within the no take zone. King Scallop, (Pecten Maximus) populations have increased almost four-fold, with the scallops being older and producing more eggs. Surveys undertaken between 2012 and 2018 highlight similar effects on European lobsters. The experience in Lamlash Bay clearly demonstrates the potential spillover benefits to Scottish fishers from even small areas of strict protection.

Another great example of a successfully implemented HPMA is the French Marine Park of la Cote Bleue, created in 1982. The no-take zone of Carry-le-Rouet was created in 1983 and a second no-take zone, the reserve of La Couronne was created in 1996. Local fishermen played a key role in the creation of La Couronne HPMA, and the management of the two no-take zones: continuous dialogue between local authorities and fishermen led to management measures beyond the Carry-le-Rouet HPMA boundaries. In their study of six no-take zones in the Mediterranean Sea, Harmelin-Vivien et al (2008)5 confirmed an increase in the abundance, biomass and size of fishes inside marine reserves. They observed that the average biomass within the marine reserve of Carry was 16.3kg, compared to 2.4 kg outside the area.

Ecological and socioeconomic benefits beyond HPMA boundaries

Research worldwide6 demonstrates that, if implemented and managed well, HPMAs can have positive effects beyond their boundaries, supporting marine activities such as fisheries or tourism. As populations within the HPMAs increase in size, and individuals grow larger and live longer, they can reproduce more. This enhanced reproductive potential can then lead to the replenishment of populations adjacent to the no take areas – a “spillover” effect to fished areas.7 The spillover effect arises firstly, through the export of eggs and larvae outside the marine reserve, and secondly from the movement of juvenile or adult animals from the no take zone to adjacent waters. Studies in the Mediterranean confirmed the role of marine reserves in sustaining local fisheries for commercial species such as the spiny lobster, Palinurus elephas. Harmelin-viven et al (2007), observed a spill over effect in all the reserves they studied, thus demonstrating the long-lasting effects of strict levels of protection.

Studies of Highly Protected areas from around the globe reflect the financial benefits for local communities from recreation and tourism. The network of marine reserves in New Zealand is often cited as a successful case. The country pioneered marine reserves by establishing its first no-take zone in 1977. Beyond observing ecological benefits and an increase of the biomass within the reserves, researchers highlighted the sharp increase in popularity of the protected areas. The first no-take zone created became a major tourist attraction and is estimated to be worth several million dollars per year to the district.

Spillover of fish was measured at up to 1959m from one of the reserve boundaries, and averaged over 500m across all the sites (Harmelin-Vivien et al, 2008). Evidence shows that the extent of the spillover effect depends on the pressure in the adjacent waters. Indeed, the spillover effect is predicted to be “smaller” in areas where adjacent waters are highly pressured.

However, HPMAs cannot be considered in isolation of other marine policies and management processes. Pauly et al. 2002 states that: “Marine protected areas (MPAs), with no-take reserves at their core, combined with a strongly limited effort in the remaining fishable areas, have been shown to have positive effects in helping to rebuild depleted stocks.”8

In order to maximise the conservation and economic benefits of HPMAs, LINK recommends that no take zones should be buffered by low impact fisheries zones, prioritising sustainable fishers who can benefit from the immediate spillover effect. Creating buffer zones would help protect low impact fisheries from displacement by giving them preferential access to waters. This would be part of meeting the Scottish Government’s Just Transition outcomes, underpinned by the 5 principles for a Just Transition, as set out by the Just Transition Commission in 2022.
A collaborative approach with all stakeholders is essential to achieving conservation objectives, and to build support among stakeholders and wider society. LINK believes that successful engagement must include improved stakeholder participation with clear expectations, wider strategy and support mechanisms for affected activities, use of best available science and independent scientific scrutiny of proposals.

For more information, contact:

Calum Duncan, Convener of LINK’s Marine Group or Fanny Royanez, LINK’s Marine Policy Officer.

Image: Calum McLennan


  1. Based on IUCN definition of MPA fully protected areas means no extractive or destructive activities are allowed.
  2. Biomass can be defined as the total quantity or weight of organisms in a given area or volume.
  3. Giakoumi, S., Scianna, C., Plass-Johnson, J. et al. Ecological effects of full and partial protection in the crowded Mediterranean Sea: a regional meta-analysis. Sci Rep 7, 8940 (2017).
  4. DOI: 10.1016/S0169-5347(03)00189-7 “Increases in protected populations are often rapid, frequently doubling or tripling in two to five years”.
  5. Harmelin-Vivien M, Le Diréach L, Bayle-Sempere J, Charbonnel E, García-Charton JA, Ody D, Pérez-Ruzafa A, Reñones O, Sánchez-Jerez P, Valle C (2008) Gradients of abundance and biomass across reserve boundaries in six Mediterranean marine protected areas: Evidence of fish spillover? Biological Conservation 141:1829-1839
  6. Effects of Marine Reserves on Adjacent Fisheries; Evidence that spillover from Marine Protected Areas benefits the spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) fishery in southern California;  Benefits beyond boundaries: the fishery effects of marine reserves.
  7. Study vindicates the benefits of no-fishing zones on the Great Barrier Reef; Benefits beyond boundaries: the fishery effects of marine reserves.
  8. Pauly, D., Christensen, V., Guénette, S., Pitcher, T. J., Sumaila, U. R., Walters, C. J., … & Zeller, D. (2002). Towards sustainability in world fisheries. Nature, 418(6898), 689-695. 


Highly Protected Marine Areas – FAQs

April 7th, 2023 by

What are “Highly Protected Marine Areas” (HPMAs)? 

Highly Protected Marine Areas are areas of the sea that are placed under strict protection to support ecosystem recovery and protect against climate change. 

The Scottish Government has committed to giving a small proportion – just 10% – of our seas this strict protection. This is in line with international recommendations for nature recovery and resilience and follows the EU’s own 10% target for strict protection. 

HPMAs are well-established globally and proven to have ecological benefits, which in turn can benefit fishers. The success of the ‘no-take zone’ (an area where no fishing is allowed, equivalent to an HPMA) of Carry-le-Rouet in the French Mediterranean, created in 1983, led to the fishing industry playing a key role in the establishment of a second HPMA nearby, the reserve of La Couronne.

Why do we need HPMAs in Scottish seas?

We are facing a twin nature and climate crisis, and nature’s recovery must be central to  government priorities and policies. In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the impact of climate change was increasingly irreversible and called for every country and sector to take drastic action on all fronts to tackle the climate crisis. Last year, the UN Secretary General declared an “Ocean Emergency” and called for collective and urgent action to restore marine life.

In Scotland, the health of our seas is vital for communities who rely on marine activities like fishing and wildlife tourism. However, evidence shows a continuing deterioration of marine ecosystems, and some of our living seabed habitats, such as seagrass, have suffered from catastrophic decline. UK administrations have collectively failed to achieve 11 out of 15 of the ‘Good Environmental Status’ targets set by the UK Marine Strategy, with seabird populations in particular continuing to decline. 

Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020 identified climate change and fishing activities that drag heavy nets across the seabed or through the water as the key pressures facing marine biodiversity. 

If implemented alongside other sustainable management measures, HPMAs would provide Scotland with core zones for ecosystem recovery, helping us address the climate and nature crises and increasing our seas’ resilience to climate change. For thriving seas with healthy fish populations, we need an effective marine planning system that protects key areas, including HPMAs, so that Scotland’s seas can support species, habitats and communities. 

How do HPMAs work? 

HPMAs provide strong levels of protection to the marine environment by prohibiting all impacting or damaging activities in a small number of designated sites. Activities that remove or damage natural resources or that dump materials and pollutants in the sea are banned. The specific rules for Scotland’s HPMAs will be determined by the Scottish Government. 

The recently published global MPA Guide provides a helpful summary of what activities are or are not compatible with fully and highly protected areas. 

What are the benefits of HPMAs?

The ecological effects of HPMAs have been widely documented globally. A 2019 study showed that HPMAs can provide greater benefits than other types of Marine Protected Areas

HPMAs provide dedicated havens for vulnerable and depleted marine life to recover. Allowing fish, shellfish and other species to flourish in a fully protected area also benefits the many people and activities that rely upon healthy seas. The benefits from these areas overflow into surrounding waters, increasing the abundance and resilience of sea life, benefitting low impact fishing. 

Analysis of the 24 no-take zones in the Mediterranean sea demonstrated that high levels of protection have significant ecological benefits for fish biomass and equally positive effects for fisheries’ target species. The total fish biomass and density were on average twice greater in fully protected areas than outside.

The community-led no take zone in Lamlash Bay off the Isle of Arran is Scotland’s only strictly protected area equivalent to a HPMA (as proposed in the recent Scottish Government consultation) and demonstrates on a small scale their potential for success. Biodiversity in the bay has increased by 50% since 2010, and the king scallop population more than trebled between 2013 and 2019. This has increased opportunities for low impact fishing and for scallop hand diving, benefitting the local economy. 

Where will HPMAs be placed?

The Scottish Government is responsible for designating Scotland’s HPMA sites. Proposals will be informed and assessed by Scottish Government conservation advisors, NatureScot and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, who will suggest whether they meet the criteria to be designated as HPMAs. Proposals from organisations and members of the public will also be invited (‘third party proposals’), which will be assessed in the same way. 

It is our view as members of Scottish Environment LINK that coastal, island and fishing communities should be closely involved in the process of designation as equal partners. An effective HPMA network should be spread across both inshore and offshore waters, in areas that have been degraded or that have the potential to recover to a more natural state, and should be designed to support both ecological and social sustainability. 

Can HPMAs exist alongside a viable fishing industry?

Yes – HPMAs can support a sustainable fishing industry. Where there are designated ocean recovery zones, fish stocks will increase with spillover effects in neighbouring areas. The example of French fishermen working towards additional HPMAs after experiencing the benefits of no-take zones shows that this approach can bring significant benefits to industry itself.

Where else has HPMAs?

HPMAs are a key tool to enable the protection and recovery of marine ecosystems. Globally, the number and coverage of HPMAs are increasing. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 sets a target of ‘strict protection’ of 10% of the EU’s seas by 2030. 

Various HPMAs can be found worldwide, and research demonstrates their benefits on marine life within and outside their boundaries. The MPA guide helpfully provides a map of 226 MPAs, 126 of which are under high levels of protection.

Sewage and chemical pollution top list of public concerns over Scottish seas

December 12th, 2022 by

People in Scotland believe sewage and chemical pollution pose the biggest threat to the health of our seas, according to new research.

The opinion poll, conducted by Survation on behalf of the environmental coalition Scottish Environment LINK, also found high levels of public concern over litter and the impact of climate change on our seas.

9 in 10 Scots say that it is important to them personally that Scotland’s seas are in a healthy state, according to the poll. But sea health is being damaged by a range of factors, including plastic, chemical and sewage pollution.

One factor concerning environmental charities is the lack of monitoring of sewage releases in Scotland – with the public left in the dark over the scale of the problem.

Sanitary waste such as wet wipes and cotton bud sticks can end up in our seas when sewers overflow due to heavy rainfall or insufficient capacity in the network.

These storm overflows, which release untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waters, are intended to operate during extreme weather events – but the Marine Conservation Society has raised concerns that storm overflows may be being used on a more regular basis.

Evidence from Marine Conservation Society volunteer Beachwatch litter surveys suggest a higher level of sewage related debris on Scottish beaches than in England and Wales, where monitoring rules are stricter.

Scottish Water monitor only 9% of storm overflows, and are required to monitor only 3%. In comparison, over 80% of overflows in England and Wales are monitored, with a commitment for 100% to be monitored by the end of 2023.

Scottish Water reported 10,763 spills in 2021 – however, this only covers the 3% of overflows they are required to monitor, suggesting a much more widespread problem.  Environmental charities have called on the Scottish Government to install electronic monitoring on all sewer overflows by 2024.

Calum Duncan, Convener of the Scottish Environment LINK Marine Group and Head of Conservation for Scotland at the Marine Conservation Society, said:

“Scotland’s beaches are beautiful – but anybody who has visited one in recent years will have noticed pollution being washed up on our shores.

“Our ocean is fundamental to life on earth, and inextricably linked to all our health and wellbeing.

“But our seas are being used as a dumping ground for sewage, plastic rubbish and ‘forever chemicals’, all of which continue to build up over time, wreaking havoc on our planet.

“We need much stronger monitoring on our sewer overflows to help target improvements and reduce the sewage and debris entering Scotland’s seas, and a ban on all non-essential ‘forever chemicals’.”

Clare Cavers, Senior Projects Manager at Fidra said:

“Evidence of pollution in our rivers and seas from invisible chemicals and tiny plastic particles is growing all the time, and a lot is known to come from sewage.

“There needs to be an urgent increase in monitoring sewage from storm overflows in Scotland, so that we can understand exactly what is coming through the sewers and where it is coming from.

“Then we can work with manufacturers, retailers and government to turn off the pollution tap and protect Scotland’s stunning seas for the next generation to enjoy.”



Marine Conservation Society briefing – Sewage related debris (Oct 22):

Scottish Environment LINK – Ocean Recovery Plan:

Opinion polling:

How important, if at all, is it to you personally that Scotland’s seas are in a healthy state?

NET Important: 91%
NET Unimportant: 5%
Don’t know: 3%

Which of the following do you think represent the greatest threat to the health of Scotland’s seas? Please rank your top 3. (Sum % of Rank 1,2,3)

Chemical or sewage pollution: 69%
Litter pollution: 61%
Impacts of climate change: 48%
Industrial fishing: 28%
Offshore oil and gas extraction: 26%
Shipping and transport: 14%
Energy infrastructure (wind turbines, subsea cables): 13%
Invasive non-native species: 12%
Aquaculture (fish and shellfish farming): 11%
Coastal developments: 9%
Marine tourism: 5%
Aquaculture (seaweed cultivation): 4%

Survation (31st Oct – 6th Nov). Sample size 1033.

Fisheries: Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras would be a win-win-win for wildlife, fishers and the consumer

October 6th, 2022 by

Guest blog by WWF Scotland Policy Advisor, Mario Ray

© / Toby Roxburgh / WWF

The UK’s fishing industry has long been a fundamental part of vibrant coastal communities, providing livelihoods to many and food to feed us, from Cullen Skink on a cold winter’s evening, to whole grilled mackerel with lemon and garlic, or scampi and chips by the sea. 

However, our seas, wildlife and the fishers whose livelihoods are dependent upon healthy marine ecosystems, are suffering. International marine biodiversity targets have not been met and the UK, as a whole, has failed to meet 11 out of the 15 indicators for achieving Good Environmental Status. Commercial fishing continues to be the most widespread pressure on the marine environment but it also has real opportunity to provide solutions and help recover our seas if done sustainably. 

Meanwhile, for fishers, uncertainties regarding market access and the increase in fuel prices have resulted in unemployment and family upheavals; with some fishers tying up their boats for good and having to relocate their families in search of alternative employment. It is a turbulent time for the fishing industry and they need to be given certainty. 

The Discard Ban 

For many years one of the key concerns over the impacts of fishing on biodiversity was the wasteful nature of many fisheries in which significant amounts of unwanted fish were dumped back into the sea, a process known as discarding. 

A discard ban was introduced with the hope that it would incentivise more selective fishing and less discarding. The rule made sense, but it was poorly managed and enforced with little evidence of widespread uptake. The fact that such a policy which required fishers to significantly change the way they operated, was not accompanied by robust monitoring to ensure a level playing field, gave it little chance of success from the outset; and many saw this coming. 


© Alexander Mustard / WWF-UK

How do you catch a haddock without catching a cod? 

In the North Sea a lot of the fish we catch are part of mixed fisheries – fish like haddock and cod tend to swim together (unlike mackerel, which swims higher up in the water column as a more exclusive and fast-moving shoal).  

The problem for fishers who target these mixed fisheries is that the quota for one fish (e.g. cod), might be very low or even set to zero, while the quota for another (e.g. haddock) might be much higher. So how do you catch a haddock without catching a cod? 

© Alexander Mustard / WWF-UK

We are constantly learning new things about the UK’s marine life. If you chase a haddock, for example, it will likely swim up towards the surface. If you chase a cod, it will swim down to the safety of the seabed. 

If you have a fishing net with larger ‘escape panels’ in the roof of the net – then you’ll not catch many haddock, but you will catch cod. Other fish can take advantage of their shape, e.g. sole, which will squeeze through fish nets with horizontal slits. Using highly selective fishing gear (that is designed taking into account fish behaviour, preferences, shape etc.) can help catch the fish you want and avoid the ones you don’t.  

However, an obstacle to investing in highly selective fishing gear is that it comes at a cost. The cost of the gear itself which can run into the tens of thousands and the cost of some marketable fish that pass through the ‘selective’ gear. With very little monitoring at sea, the impact of the discard ban was not clear. While some complied and invested in new gear, others continued to operate with business as usual. Without the level playing field, which would have been achieved with robust monitoring, it created a competitive advantage for those that continued to discard. 

A game-changing technology is ready for roll-out 

The good news is there is a tried and tested solution that’s a win-win-win for wildlife, fishers and you: Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras.  

REM is a powerful and cost-effective tool that answers three fundamental questions: where boats are fishing, when and how they are fishing and most importantly, what is being removed from the water – target and non-target species. With a much clearer picture we can improve fisheries management, help prevent overfishing and ensure fishing is sustainable for future generations. 

Design and illustration by


People are increasingly concerned with the provenance of their seafood, and the impact it has on marine wildlife.  The best tool to help de-risk fisheries and give green light for access to more retailers is REM with cameras. This technology enables fishers to demonstrate to the public and retailers that they are operating in a sustainable way, using best practice and highest levels of selectivity.   

REM would also empower fishers by putting them at the heart of the data collection process, bridging the gap between them and fisheries managers.  Fishers spend a significant amount of their lives at sea and claims that catch quotas are out of touch with what they are seeing in their nets need to be addressed. The ‘fish-counting’ cameras provide fishers with an opportunity to document what they are seeing and feed into the science of quota setting.  In the Netherlands, smart cameras have been taught to differentiate between different fish species. With ongoing developments in technology, we envisage a day where scientific data will be accessed by fisheries, managers and fishers alike, in real-time, after each haul. 

REM has been tried and tested for more than 20 years and is in use across many fisheries globally. In Denmark, following successful trials, REM is being rolled out across their fishing fleet which is very similar to that of the UK. Across the food sector, it has become standard practice to safeguard work places through the use of cameras. Cameras are mandatory in slaughterhouses in the UK, with recordings processed in line with data protection requirements to address privacy issues. Fisheries should be no different.  

UK governments must seize the opportunity 

Following Britain’s departure from the EU, UK governments are developing new ‘catching’ policies which if done right, could both improve the health of our seas and make livelihoods more secure. 

Accountability and confidence will be central principles of these new policies, however, without equipping vessels with the tools they need to provide the required levels of at-sea monitoring these policies will fall short of their objectives. 

Last month, one of the UK Government’s own statutory bodies, Natural England, released a report with the key message that Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras is vital to achieving Good Environmental Status (GES) and recommended the immediate roll-out of this technology to the ‘highest risk’ fleets such as demersal trawls to: 1) help promote compliance; 2) collect data for data-poor fisheries; 3) protect sensitive species; and 4) contribute to achieving GES. 

It was disappointing that UK governments did not take the opportunity to commit to rolling out REM across the UK fishing fleet when they produced the draft Joint Fisheries Statement – a document that sets out how fisheries will be managed across the UK now that we have left the EU.  

There is still an opportunity, however, as the final version of the JFS has yet to make an appearance. We believe there is still an opportunity for all four government administrations to provide a unified voice in support of REM with cameras being a key element of fishing in UK waters. UK governments are still to develop their individual plans or ‘catching policies’ which should require REM as a key means of helping delivery and providing support.  

The Scottish Government is to be credited for taking forward REM with consultations for roll-out to the scallop dredge and pelagic fleets, however, the concern is that plans to roll-out REM are not prioritising the vessels which need it the most.  

© Alexander Mustard / WWF-UK

We know that gillnets and longlines carry some of the highest risk of seabird bycatch while whales are often accidentally killed in creel lines and other cetaceans like porpoises become entangled in gillnets and dolphins are caught in trawl nets. We are yet to achieve good environmental status for whales and dolphins, and the situation for seabirds is getting worse instead of better1 We also know that demersal trawls have the highest risk of shark and skate bycatch and discarding. REM can help to monitor bycatch rates and the use of mitigation measures. 

Whatever changes are implemented in the new catching policies, we believe that the degree to which they are underpinned by robust at-sea monitoring with cameras will be a defining factor in achieving sustainable fisheries in the UK. 

The question is… when will the UK governments step up and roll-out REM to the fleets that highest-risk fleets and embrace the benefits that REM brings for wildlife, fishers and the consumer?   

Scots support strong protection for their seas

July 24th, 2022 by

Current levels of wildlife protection in Scotland’s seas are too weak, according to an opinion poll gauging the views of Scots on the health of the marine environment. Only around half of respondents felt that Scotland’s seas are in good condition, with 46% stating that the quality of Scotland’s seas have worsened in the last 10 years. Pollution, the effects of climate change and industrial fishing are cited as the greatest perceived threat to our seas.


World Ocean Day: protecting at least 30% Scotland’s seas for ecosystem recovery

June 8th, 2022 by

Meeting commitments to protect at least 30% of Scottish seas for ecosystem recovery by 2030


A picture of the sea from a cliff top

Evidence is growing to show that the health of Scotland’s seas has been in decline for some time. Seabed habitats are a shadow of what they once were, fish stocks have dwindled, and coastlines are changing due to the impacts of climate change. By law our seas should have been in ‘Good Environmental Status’ by 2020 (seas are healthy and productive and resources are being used at sustainable levels), but unfortunately all governments across the UK failed to achieve this for 11 out of 15 indicators. And that’s not to mention the bigger picture that this is a worldwide trend, with the earth now widely recognised as being simultaneously in the midst of a climate emergency and nature crisis – a de facto ocean emergency. Arguably we now need to go further than GES. (more…)