What Are Marine Protected Areas?

What Are Marine Protected Areas?

What Are Marine Protected Areas?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are the equivalent of national parks on land. The Scottish Government’s intention behind the creation of MPAs is to protect threatened species and habitats which are vital for the recovery of our fisheries. Securing the health of our oceans – the lungs of the world – also means we can survive too.  Multiple MPAs form a network that helps seed other parts of the sea. This provides a kind of insurance policy and resilience, particularly from the threat of overfishing and climate change.

In 2014 when the MPA debate really began, apart from the creel and dive fishermen and marine scientists willing to speak out, the public, politicians and media seemed unaware of the potential for ecosystem collapse.  Marine conservation biologist Callum Robert warned about the situation in his published research ‘Ecological Meltdown in the Firth of Clyde, Scotland: Two Centuries of Change in a Coastal Marine Ecosystem’. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2912323/

Despite the warnings it was ‘business as usual’. Many informed scientists thought we could be in the last chance saloon. The Network of Marine Protected Areas was that chance.  They provided an historic opportunity. 

Sea Change’s primary focus therefore was to ban destructive fishing methods which destroyed habitats (nursery and spawning grounds) for many of these former fisheries. One of our members who was a local scientist was very concerned that trawl (and dredge) by-catch had led to a rapid loss of habitat and fish. In fact he plotted the fisheries by-catch data on a graph providing evidence that trawling was a significant factor in causing a crash in key fisheries. It was no surprise but we needed evidence to challenge the resistance in the system. 

The large NGOs did a lot of detailed work behind the scenes but the message wasn’t getting home to the public or politicians. 

The 2009 documentary ” The End of the Line” was a wake up call.  Not many had woken up. Professor Callum Roberts, (the scientist who wrote about the ‘Melt Down’ in the Clyde) had been ringing alarm bells alongside other scientists and NGOs around the world calling for Marine Protected Areas.

The Scottish Government had agreed to implement these to meet their International agreements – but only in a very watered down way.  Despite quite clear guidelines in the ‘Marine Strategy Framework Directive’ about achieving ” good environmental status” across the ecosystem,  the proposals seemed half hearted – more like ‘paper parks’ with meaningless real protection. 

Securing Wester Ross MPA’s ‘Umbrella’ protection. 

Preceding the creation of the Scottish Marine Protected Area network, Sea Change began by helping to secure the designation of the proposed MPA in Wester Ross which was then known as the Summer Isles and Northern Sea Lochs MPA.

Eminent marine scientists, (Callum Roberts amongst them) warned that if we were already fishing the bottom of the food chain with only scallops and prawns left in our area then a well protected MPA was imperative. 

Fishing the bottom of the food chain

Despite the abundant fisheries of old, the only commercial fisheries of any size left ( prawn and scallop although there is crab and lobster too) in a sense is like fishing the equivalent of  insects on land. This indicates how many fisheries had been lost from the whole ecological food chain already. Some scientists and fishermen are concerned about the collapse of these “last” fisheries  if recovery is not secured through better management.  Over fishing of these stocks combined with the destruction of nursery and spawning grounds could lead to a collapse it would be difficult to return from. We are determined that will not happen in Wester Ross.

Collapse of Fisheries and Shifting Baselines in Wester Ross

What we accept as ‘normal’ today would have been an empty sea to our ancestors. We want a sea which is alive again, our passion is shared by many fishermen, anglers and those involved in marine tourism too.   Visitors to coastal communities like those in Wester Ross are attracted by the ‘wilderness’ and natural world, as well as angling, sitings of sea mammals and experiencing great tasting seafood.  

Wester Ross was once world famous for its diverse and abundant fishing.  It attracted salmon and sea trout fishermen from all over the world.  Fleets of small boats fishing for white fish and herring had supported the local economy and way of life locally. Ullapool was the UK’s most important herring port.  Everyone had seafood suppers. Fish were plentiful.  

See John McIntyre’s Blog: Shifting Baselines – Sea Change Wester Ross


Loch Maree in particular had been world famous for its salmon and sea trout fishery. These have almost collapsed along with the jobs they supported. This is as a result of a complicated combination of reasons including salmon farming. Other fin-fish fisheries have collapsed too. 

‘Wastelands’ had been created by dredging, and trawling was responsible for undermining the recovery of fish that live close to the seabed. Salmon farms are adding pollution, chemicals and creating unbalanced nutrient levels and adding to the sea lice problem with wild fish.

Plastic and other chemical pollutants were/are adding to the mix. 

With MPAs as the critical turning point,  the stakes were very high indeed.

Sea Change took on the specific role of working with the low impact fishermen to lobby for this in Wester Ross Marine Protected Area.

Due to an incident where a scallop dredger violated the voluntary agreement (described in detail in Our Story & Evolution – Sea Change Wester Ross


The Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead announced the closure of the Marine Protected Area in August 2015.

A few months later on the 23rd March 2016 the management orders for our Marine Protected Area were finally ratified by Parliament.

The long slow recovery had begun. 

To note: Marine Scotland has this to say about the penalties for illegal dredge incursions into the MPA.

Dredging is completely banned from the MPA. Anyone deploying their fishing gear inside the boundary is committing an offence. However it is not the presence in an MPA that is an offence, it is the active fishing activity. The penalty is up to £50,000 as stated in the explanatory notes of the MCO; it would either be the Statutory max of £5k or £50k as the maximum fines available to a Sheriff on summary conviction. Marine Scotland have no sway on what penalty a Sheriff would give, should there be sufficient evidence of actual fishing activity to prosecute.