(c) Katie Nethercoat (rspb-images.com)

Today’s blog is written by Jacques Villemot and Ruby Temple-Long, Marine Policy Officers, on the recent UK Government announcement to bring new fisheries management measures in four of England’s offshore Marine Protected Areas,

 

After decades of advocacy from the RSPB and its partners, the UK Government will prohibit the use of damaging fishing gears in four Marine Protected Areas, including the Dogger Bank SAC, which is so important for our seabirds.

 

The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) announced, on the evening of the 13 April, new regulations to protect four offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in English waters. These regulations will prohibit the use of damaging fishing gears in these sites, including the use of bottom towed fishing gear in the Dogger Bank SAC, bringing an end to targeted sandeel fishing in the area – a great news for our seabirds.

Indeed, the Dogger Bank is the largest sandbank in the central-southern North Sea, and is rich in sandeel, a small oily fish that is a key food source for seabirds and their chicks as well as marine mammals and commercial fish.

 

Great news for UK seabirds

This is very welcome news for two reasons. Firstly, it is a step towards addressing the impact of fishing on seabirds’ prey, in this case sandeel. Studies have demonstrated the link between the decline of some UK seabird species and the reduced availability of these small fish. They are a staple of many of our seabirds’ diets, including the gentle kittiwakes, colourful puffins and tail-streaming terns. While climate change is held primarily responsible for the decline in abundance and quality of the sandeel, industrial fishing is gravely exacerbating the problem.

Secondly, this is also a much-needed measure to boost the value of the UK’s network of MPAs. Protected areas are a vital tool to help nature thrive, but there are questions about the current effectiveness of the UK’s network at sea. Indeed, gaps remain (including for our internationally important seabird populations) and much of the network remains unprotected from harmful activities. In fact, a recent report from the Marine Conservation Society has highlighted that damaging fishing activities continued to take place in 98% of offshore protected areas designated to protect seabed habitats around the UK, rendering their purpose obscure when they were originally designated to protect these fragile marine ecosystems.

 

It can only be the beginning

Better management of UK fisheries is still needed

However, much is still to be done. Industrial fishing fleets will continue to remove hundreds of thousands of tonnes of these small shoaling fishes that are vital for healthy marine food webs from other areas, continuing to make it hard for seabirds to find enough food. While the closure of the Dogger Bank SAC is welcome, closing this area alone will only halt a relatively small proportion of sandeel fishing effort in UK waters. The most intense fishing effort is currently exerted outside of the site’s , and pressure could be intensified in these areas as a result of displacement of fishing effort from the SAC.

Heat map of effort distribution for Danish Sandeels Trawls, 2007-2009

 Image 1 - "Heat map" of effort distribution (KWhrs) for Danish sandeels trawls between 2007-2009 with highest effort shown in red.

The RSPB is now more than ever calling on governments to close the whole of the UK’s waters (or as a minimum the whole of Dogger Bank beyond the protected area and Scottish waters) to industrial sandeel fishing. Alongside stronger regulation of the fishery itself, we also need to see changes to the way catch limits are set for sandeels across the whole of the North Sea to ensure maximum annual catch limits take full account of predators’ needs and areas that are closed to fishing.

Lately, there have been welcome steps to manage the industrial, largely Danish, sandeel fishery in UK waters with sandeel catch limits being set in line with scientific advice for 2022 and a UK-wide call for evidence issued in which UK administrations recognised that ‘urgent actions are needed to protect sandeel and Norway pout stocks and the wider marine ecosystem’. The new Dogger Bank SAC regulations are a long-awaited and welcome addition, but ultimately a new approach to managing industrial fisheries across UK waters and the wider North Sea is needed to ensure that nature’s recovery at the centre.

Better management of UK marine protected sites is needed

More MPAs around England and the UK are currently lacking management and desperately needing the same level of attention these four offshore MPAs benefitted from. There are 40 offshore protected areas in England, leaving 36 still subjected to harmful fishing practices. The MMO has committed to review the impact of fishing in all these sites by 2024, and despite the time it has taken to assess the first four sites, it is critical for our globally important seabirds and for marine biodiversity as a whole that they respect their engagement and timeline.

We have been calling on governments to throw a lifeline to some of the country’s most loved seabirds for decades, and this news gives us hope that we have been heard. However, much is yet to be done to halt and reverse their decline. From properly managing and enforcing MPAs to ensuring better protection of seabirds’ prey, we are eager to see how governments will fight to recover our internationally important seabird populations for the future.

 

Further reading:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/globalassets/downloads/documents/campaigning-for-nature/rspb2021_the-case-for-stronger-regulation-of-sandeel-fisheries-in-uk-waters.pdf 

https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/policy-insight/england-westminster/policy-briefings/sandeel-fisheries-in-uk-waters/

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