Scottish Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse announced Friday the Sound of Barra will be submitted to Brussels for inclusion in the EU-wide network of SACs, capping 13 years of controversy spurred by fears its elimination as a shellfish fishery will hurt the local economy.
"Thanks to generations of careful stewardship by the local community, Sound of Barra is a diverse and precious environment, home to important seal populations with reefs and sandbanks that support many species," Wheelhouse said in a statement. "The concerns of the local community have been taken into consideration and we will be implementing a new bottom-up approach to the management structure to ensure as much local involvement as possible."
The sound is located in the Atlantic Ocean the between the mainly Gaelic-speaking Barra -- the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides -- and the adjacent island of South Uist, an area covering about 50 square miles.
Its designation as a SAC was first proposed in 2000.
Wheelhouse said he wants "all those with an interest to have the opportunity to work constructively together on securing a bright future for Sound of Barra and the wider region."
The move was made after Scottish National Heritage commissioned an independent study of the sound's ecology, which, he said, concluded the scientific data for its designation as a SAC "was robust."
That is why, after "careful consideration, I've decided to accept the proposal," the Scottish minister said.
"The outstanding beauty of Barra and its growing reputation as an important nature location can only be enhanced by SAC status, increasing tourism to the island," he said.
"It is imperative for Scotland's wildlife, economy and international reputation that our most significant natural assets are given the fullest protection and the Sound of Barra is certainly one of Scotland's wildlife jewels," Alex Kinninmonth, living seas policy officer for SNH, told the BBC. "This will inevitably mean some restrictions, but low-impact activities compatible with the new protected status will be allowed to continue and should thrive in the long term."
Scottish National Party Member of Parliament Angus MacNeil blasted the decision, saying it was backed by "faceless bureaucrats in the EU" without meetings with "the areas and communities involved."
The local group Southern Hebrides Against Marine Environmental Designations also denounced the move.
Angus MacLeod, one of group's founders, told The Herald the Scottish government's rejection of a petition challenging the scientific study's conclusions last year indicated the sound's management as a SAC won't benefit fishermen.
"The way things have been going with one door after another being slammed shut in our faces -- SNH, the government, the petitions committee -- but they just horsed on and did what they always intended to do since 2000," he said. "We will believe community-led management of the Barra SAC it when we see it."