Blog by: Dr Euan Dunn, RSPB Principal Policy Officer

Last week, two US members of Congress  – Debbie Dingell (Democrat, Michigan) and Brian Mast (Republican, Florida) – introduced bipartisan legislation, the ‘Forage Fish Conservation Act’,  to promote responsible management of the small, nutrient fish such as sand lance (or sandeel as we call it here) which provide a vital link in the food web as prey for seabirds, marine mammals and other marine wildlife, including commercially important table fish like  tuna, salmon and cod.  

Welcoming the legislation and throwing National Audubon’s weight behind it, Karen Hyun (NA’s Vice President of Coastal Conservation) said; “Seabirds are in trouble.  One of the main threats they face is the growing competition for a dwindling food supply, and that is the problem this legislation will help solve.  Conserving forage fish ensures seabirds have more food to eat, which is a huge step towards reversing the 70 percent decline we have seen in their populations.”

This move comes on the back of the 2017 ban on any new fisheries targeting seven broad groups of forage fish species along the entire West Coast of the USA out to 200 nautical miles.  In this bold application of the precautionary approach, fisheries for these fish were declared off limits until such time as there was clear scientific evidence that exploitation wouldn’t harm other fisheries or the wider marine ecosystem.

Hyun’s response to the new legislation tabled last week could just as easily have been said of the situation in the UK where sandeel and sprat are the crucial trophic link between plankton, seabirds, cetaceans and other top predators in the marine foodweb.  Populations of many of our seabirds are in steep decline, some verging on freefall.  According to the 2017 assessment by OSPAR (Oslo & Paris Commission), more than a quarter of North-East Atlantic seabird species declined by more than 20% on average in the past 25 years, the rate of attrition increasing the further north you go.

Photo: Sandeels, by Anne Bignall 

There’s a clear pattern of the highly sandeel-dependent species faring the worst, especially surface feeders such as the kittiwake and arctic tern which, unlike the auks, cannot plumb the depths to seek alternative prey.  Why is this happening?  The evidence is mounting that climate-change driven sea warming is disrupting the plankton regime with a knock-on reduction in the abundance and even the individual size of sandeels.  While it will take a monumental effort to turn around the climate juggernaut, we can at least ensure that commercial fishing for sandeels in UK waters does not make things even worse.  We know that the Danish-led sandeel fishery in the North Sea can deplete local aggregations of sandeels to the detriment of seabirds and that this may be happening on the Dogger Bank at the expense of kittiwake breeding success on the adjacent Yorkshire coast, now the biggest concentration of these birds on the UK mainland.

The RSPB is therefore calling for much stronger curbs on the offshore sandeel fishery, and ideally a total ban on the fishery in UK waters, likewise for sprat which is the other go-to prey species for many of our seabirds.  Politically the time is right for a such a step change.  Firstly, the UK Government has committed to pursue an ‘ecosystem-based approach’ to fisheries management in the emerging domestic Fisheries Act which will replace the Common Fisheries Policy when we leave the EU.  In this context our Government has also expressed the aspiration to establish the UK as a world leader in sustainable fisheries.  Taking a leaf out of the USA book and reining in forage fisheries would be a worthy demonstration of that intent.

Contact: Euan Dunn