Scotland politics

Barra fishermen march on Holyrood in conservation row

Islanders who claim new conservation rules could put their economic future under threat have held a protest at the Scottish Parliament.

Residents on Barra, in the Western Isles, say plans to designate some of their fishing grounds special areas of conservation will hit the industry.

Conservation agency Scottish Natural Heritage says sandbanks, reef and seal habitats need special protection.

Tory MSP Jamie McGrigor led a backbench debate on the issue at Holyrood.

Local MSP and government minister Alasdair Allan opposes the move.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust said the Sound of Barra should be recognised as a special area of conservation (SAC).

For centuries, the fishermen of Barra have harvested the waters around their island and millions of people have become aware of the controversy because of the BBC series, Island Parish, which documents life in the southern Western Isles.

The Sound of Barra special area of conservation would also give protection, under European law, to species such as harbour seals.

Mr Allan, a junior education minister in the Scottish government, said the Barra community had been excluded from having a proper say on the issue and that generations of islanders have used the area responsibly.

The SNH consultation on the special designation has said fishing could continue on a managed basis, should the measure be put in place.

Environment Minister Stewart Stevenson met the Barra representatives before the debate.

Image caption A SAC to protect coral in East Mingulay off Barra was approved by ministers in 2011

He said: "Quite understandably the people of Barra are seeking to protect their own economic and environmental interests and, as such, are concerned by what the possible SAC designation may mean.

"What I can assure them of, is that when I make my decision I will ensure that protecting local interests is a very significant consideration.

"If I bring forward an SAC designation my objective is to do so when three conditions are met. Local people will be invited to participate in a management plan that protects local interests - including ensuring that a sustainable scallop fishery can be maintained in the area.

"Furthermore, any such management plan would need to provide a continuing role for local interests in management of the area. And finally, the proposals progressed must conform to EU rules."

'Wildlife jewel'

He added: "It is vital that local fishing and community interests engage in the process, so that we can work in collaboration and ensure the best outcome is reached - both for the Sound of Barra and for the wider local community."

The Scottish Wildlife Trust said the Sound of Barra was of European importance.

Alex Kinninmonth, of the trust, said: "The Sound of Barra is one of Scotland's wildlife jewels.

"The truth is that sustainable fishing will be able to continue in the Sound of Barra."

He added: "Fishermen who don't damage the protected features should actually be the first to benefit from a healthy, resilient and legally protected marine ecosystem."

There are 40 existing marine SACs in Scotland and include one in the Moray Firth.

In August last year, Scottish ministers approved plans to designate an area of seabed off East Mingulay, also off Barra, as a new SAC.

Ministers said the move would help protect a rare coral reef about eight miles (13km) out to sea.

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