Protection zones for whales, dolphins and basking sharks are being considered across thousands of miles of sea off the Scottish coast.
The Scottish Government has launched a three-month consultation on the proposals for four more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which it hopes will protect species including minke whales, basking sharks and Risso’s dolphins.
MPAs already account for 22% of Scottish waters at 231 sites, but the additional proposals would make Scotland the first country to provide designated areas for minke whale and basking sharks.
Announcing the consultation, on World Oceans Day, Minister for the Natural Environment Mairi Gougeon called for feedback on the plans and said: “It is our duty to help protect and enhance our marine environment so that it remains a prized asset for future generations.
“Not only are they fundamental to our way of life, they provide habitats for a huge diversity of marine wildlife and it is vital that we ensure appropriate protection for them.
“Scotland’s seas account for 61% of the UK’s waters and are internationally recognised as being important for whales, dolphins and basking sharks.
“These MPAs would offer additional levels of protection to these species, and ensure the MPA network is fully representative of Scotland’s marine diversity.”
Conservation groups have welcomed the plans, which would cover more than 5,000sq miles of Scotland’s waters.
The recommended sites are: North-east Lewis, with protected features for Risso’s dolphins and sandeels; the Sea of the Hebrides, which would be the largest of the new MPAs where sharks and whales can be found; Shiant East Bank in sea which separates the Outer Hebrides from the mainland with features to protect sponge and coral habitats; as well as the Southern Trench which would support minke whales.
Calum Duncan from the Marine Conservation Society said: “Scotland’s seas are globally important for a range of species and habitats, including the mighty basking shark, but they face increasing pressure from climate change and human activity.
“We know that Scotland’s wildlife and environmental quality are of immense value, both intrinsically and to our global reputation, and so are pleased these new sites are being proposed.
“It is vital such special places are properly protected from damaging activities to support wider marine ecosystem health and ensure Scotland is a beacon of ocean recovery worldwide.”
But conservation group Scottish Environment Link warned the proposals would protect the sites “in name only”, adding that further measures to reduce the impact of human activities on the protected species and habitats will be required.
Dr Richard Luxmoore, conservation adviser for the National Trust for Scotland, said: “We are delighted to see these proposals to protect some of the largest and most recognisable species in Scotland’s seas.
“However, this is only the first step in the process of securing their protection.
“Some MPAs designated five years ago still have no statutory protection measures, which we look forward to being addressed, and we can’t wait as long again for these new MPAs.”
Scottish Greens environment spokesman Mark Ruskell said: “Green MSPs secured additional funding for these new MPAs during budget negotiations last year and I’m delighted the Scottish Government is now living up to this commitment.
“There’s a growing awareness of the threats posed to our seas and it’s vital that Scotland’s much-loved whale and dolphin species are given the strongest protection available.”