The Scottish Government has hit back at criticism by fishermen and Western Isles Councillors in regards to the consultation period for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
Environment Secretary, Richard Lochhead had come under fire for announcing a four week consultation for the controversial MPAs which would take in the Christmas holiday period.
Last Friday the Scottish government announced two fishing areas around the islands, near Mingulay and St Kilda will close.
A further two key fishing grounds for island boats, around the Small Isles and Wester Ross, will be involved in the new consultation period.
Councillor Uisdean Robertson from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, who chairs the joint Fisheries Industry Group formed to fight the closures, said: “We were stunned that two valuable areas have been closed without listening to the local community, and with no further discussion.”
However a Scottish Government spokesperson disputed that no communication with the community had taken place, they stated: “We have had extensive consultation with stakeholders over the 20 weeks public consultation on the management of these sites.
“In response to that consultation we have made further changes to three of the sites and are now consulting on these changes and would urge all those with an interest to respond to by 17th January.”
The Scottish Government has stated that it believes MPAs will improve marine conservation.
It is hoped the designation will protect kelp and rocky reefs to reduce coastal erosion, and seagrass beds which capture and store carbon and provide nursery habitats.
The Scottish Government designated 30 MPAs last year and subsequently consulted on the associated management measures for a total of 20 sites.
The MPA network covers only four per cent of Scottish inshore waters, and it is estimated that the direct economic impact on the fishing industry will be very low - around 0.25 per cent of its combined earnings.
To help minimise any local impact, Mr Lochhead has announced a three point plan including:
• An environmental monitoring strategy, including opportunities for vessels to participate with funding of up to £500,000 over three years.
• Resources for diversification will be an early priority for the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.
• A commitment to undertake a robust economic study in a year’s time to assess the impact on coastal communities.
Mr Lochhead said: “We need to take decisive action to conserve our precious and valuable marine environment and biodiversity. Our MPAs are widely supported, and will protect important seabed features, such as maerl beds which provide habitat for scallops, and species such as horse mussels which improve our water quality.
“We have received a range of different views on our proposals from communities, stakeholders, and the fishing industry – including many in the static sector who support our proposals whilst others have expressed concern.
“As a result, I have made changes where I can to reduce any potential economic impact while still protecting the integrity of our initial proposals and desire to protect and conserve the marine environment for future generations.
“It’s important that our management measures differentiate between high and low impact fishing activities. While our analysis tells us the overall impact on fishing will be low, at around 1.7 per cent of affected vessel landings, I have put in place measures to help mitigate any impact.
“We must balance the interests of protecting Scotland’s marine environment with wider interests, particularly those of the fishing industry. However, failure to protect coastal areas would result in permanent damage to habitats and the fish stocks they support – that is the real risk for our coastal communities.”