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

05 Jun 2024

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

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