Proposal to end support for commercial sandeel fishing a lifeline for Scottish seabirds

By Jess Barrett, RSPB Scotland, Friday19th May 2023

RSPB Scotland hails Scottish Government announcement of a consultation on ending commercial sandeel fishing in Scottish waters.

Today’s announcement by the Scottish Government of a consultation to close Scottish waters to industrial sandeel fishing by EU trawlers is a game changer in efforts to help our most threatened seabirds, says RSPB Scotland. The nature conservation charity is calling on people to raise their voice in support of these measures in the consultation, due this summer.

Scotland is home to globally important populations of seabird species but many of them have seen huge declines in their numbers due to a range of human created pressures. Species that are highly dependent on sandeels for food are faring the worst and have suffered frequent and widespread breeding failures; Kittiwakes and Puffins are now threatened with global extinction.

The removal of sandeels, small oily fish, from Scottish waters – almost exclusively by EU trawlers – has been an issue for decades as it depletes the food available and makes it harder for seabirds to find enough food to feed their chicks. It also exacerbates the impact climate change is having on sandeel numbers.

Pressures seabirds face include: climate change, prey availability, mortality in fishing gear, and offshore wind development. The current outbreak of Avian Flu (HPAI) which ripped through many colonies in summer 2022, killing tens of thousands of adult and chick seabirds in the UK, is making the need to protect vital food sources, like sandeels, even more urgent.

For many years, the Scottish Government has led the way in the UK at safeguarding sandeels from industrial fishing including the creation of the North East UK Sandeel Closure and the designations of Marine Protected Areas for sandeels and feeding seabirds.

Today’s commitment to a consultation is a vital step closer to securing Scottish Government’s longstanding position to not support industrial fishing for sandeels in Scottish waters.

Aedán Smith, Head of Policy and Advocacy at RSPB Scotland said: “Closing Scottish waters to industrial sandeel fishing is the single greatest action that can be taken to support our most vulnerable seabirds right now. It will not only build their resilience in the face of Avian Flu but also help them weather the multitude of other human made pressures they face.

“We commend the leadership shown by the Scottish Government on this issue, and urge people across Scotland to add their voice to support for this vital proposed change to ensure industrial sandeel fishing is brought to an end once and for all, and before next year’s fishing season starts in April 2024. Scotland’s seabirds are in decline and face multiple threats we need to do all we can to secure a better future for them.”

Every year industrial trawlers, mostly from Denmark, remove thousands of tonnes of sandeels from the North Sea in Scottish waters to turn into fishmeal and fish oil for use in commercial livestock and fish feed. RSPB Scotland have been calling for action to tackle this for decades. Ending industrial sandeel fishing would have minimal impact on Scottish fishing vessels. Larger fish like salmon, and commercially targeted stocks like haddock and cod also feed on sandeels and could benefit from the proposals.

Scotland is home to the majority of the UK’s seabirds so these proposals are vital in efforts to improve the future outlook for our internationally important colonies. Defra is currently consulting on introducing a full prohibition on sandeel fishing in English waters, which together with Scotland will deliver the very measures needed to bring industrial sandeel fishing to an end around the UK, helping to build resilience in our seas at a critical time.

The Scottish Government’s announcement can be viewed here.