Campaigners are demanding local management of marine areas following new plans to designate more areas of the sea around the Western Isles for conservation.
With the Scottish Parliamentary Election in full swing and parliamentary business on ice until after the May 5th ballot campaigners have been frustrated that a new marine Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for porpoises went out to consultation on March 23rd, the day before the Scottish Parliament was dissolved for the election campaign.
The Southern Hebrides Against Marine Environmental Designations (SHAMED) revealed Scottish Natural Heritage’s consultation on behalf of the government will end on May 18th, barely two weeks after the election, and with the new parliamentarians just finding their feet in the corridors of Holyrood.
In comparison an equivalent consultation on porpoise SAC’s in England and Wales has been running since January.
SHAMED also highlighted that the proposed SAC for porpoises covers 13,540 km2 of the Minch, from northeast Lewis down to the southern end of Jura, an area equivalent to the size of Northern Ireland.
It will affect three local authorities, as well as countless small communities.
SHAMED Chairman Angus MacLeod, a crofter-fisherman from Barra, pointed out that in addition to the sheer size of these sites, some areas of the Minch will have not just one but three and even four designations stacked one on top of the other, such as around the Small Isles and Coll and Tiree.
He added that the controversial Sound of Barra SAC will also be overlaid by a much larger SPA for birds which will involve communities stretching from Harris down to Vatersay.
The porpoise documentation lists possible threats to the species, including not just certain types of fishing but all vessel movements, pollution, fish farming, cables and pipelines and marine renewables.
According to SHAMED, the marine conservation sites must raise doubts over the Western Isles Council’s aim to take control of the seabed and its support for local renewable energy initiatives.
Mr MacLeod said: “Some people were reassured by the SNP when the Sound of Barra SAC was confirmed in July 2013. A new, bottom-up approach to managing marine sites was going to be set up here, which would be a model for community management elsewhere.
“A very embarrassing political situation was therefore averted. But where is the promised local group and how will it work now?”
Even more serious, says the campaign, there is no evidence that any leading player from the conservation lobby supports the idea of a local community being “in the driving seat” of site management.
“You will not find conservation groups calling for local people to take charge,” said Angus MacLeod.
“What they want is the opposite. They want the state to engage in close monitoring of marine sites and to promote ‘a culture of compliance’ towards them.”
Talking about the impact of conservation designations applied to the waters off the Western Isles, Comhairle Councillor Alasdair Macleod, said: “The Outer Hebrides and surrounding area already makes a significant contribution towards Scotland’s overall commitment to safeguarding the natural environment.
“It presently contributes through several environmental designations including international RAMSAR designations; European NATURA Habitats and Birds Directives; Special Protection Areas (SPA); Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and national designations such as SSSI’s and National Scenic Areas.
“With this in mind the Outer Hebrides makes a significantly greater contribution than any other part of Scotland and many in the islands are strongly of the opinion that there is a direct correlation between the inappropriately high level of environmental designation and our low level of economic performance.
“The further spread of designations into the marine environment is a huge cause of concern locally, resulting in the Comhairle developing a policy position to resist any new designation unless it can be comprehensively demonstrated that they will have no negative impact on economic performance or future development prospects whether this relates to fishing, aquaculture, renewable energy, or the ability of the islands to manage its own resources.
“Indeed the Comahirle has called for and is pressing for a ten year moratorium on the introduction of any new environmental designations in the Outer Hebrides.”