Shrinking sandeels? – shrink the fishery!

A guest blog by Dr Euan Dunn, author of a new RSPB report (link at the end of the blog), which makes the case for strengthening the management of fishing for sandeels – a small oily fish that is both the target of industrial fishing in the North Sea and the favourite food of kittiwakes, puffins and much more besides.  

Shrinking sandeels? – shrink the fishery! 

In 1996 I attended a ground-breaking meeting in Bergen, Norway at which two eminent fisheries scientists concluded that the Danish-led industrial fishery for North Sea sandeels failed on nearly every conceivable count to meet the criteria for a sustainable, well managed fishery, putting the breeding success of seabird colonies at risk.  Declaring ‘It would therefore seem precautionary to close areas in the vicinity of these colonies to fishing until more is known about sandeel stock structure and the interactions between sandeels and seabirds. 

Front page of a a newspaper with the head line "Stop this slaughter! The perils of fishing today"

Front page of the Fishing News, March 1996 

Following this damning indictment, and pressure from the RSPB and others including Scottish fishermen, a number of checks and balances were introduced, of which the most stringent was the exclusion in 2000 of sandeel fishing from over 20,000 km2 of sea off the east coast of Scotland and north-east England where there was particular concern over plummeting kittiwake numbers.  The creation of this sandeel ‘box’, still in place today, was clearly necessary but over twenty years on and in the grip of a nature and climate emergency we have to ask: Is it sufficient?  

Since 2000 the kittiwake population continued to fall steeply. Although regular monitoring at select colonies indicates that numbers have stabilised over the past decade they remain historically low.  The UK population of kittiwakes (Scotland is home to 3/4) is thought to have halved since the 1960s and the latest results of regular monitoring indicate that Scottish breeding numbers in 2019 were 60% below the 1986 baseline. In 2017, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species declared kittiwake to be at high risk of global extinction.  In Orkney and Shetland, kittiwake colonies which undoubtedly existed for centuries have all but vanished, turning once vibrant, caterwauling seabird cliffs into ghost towns. 

pair of kittiwakes on a cliff-side nest

Kittiwake pair on nest  

Further south in North Yorkshire we check the pulse of this erosion every year at the RSPB Bempton Cliffs Nature Reserve, part of what is now the UK’s biggest surviving mainland kittiwake colony since the collapse of several Scottish island colonies.  A kittiwake pair needs to raise at least one chick to fledging every year to maintain the local population but for several years the Bempton colony has been flatlining at fewer than 0.6 chicks per pair.  What’s going wrong? 

As a surface feeder, highly dependent on finding enough sandeels in the summer to support itself, far less raise its young, the kittiwake lives on a knife edge, extremely vulnerable to a food shortage.  In recent years, sandeel abundance and nutritional quality have declined markedly in our waters, due mainly to rising sea temperatures altering the mix and seasonal timing of the zooplankton which fuel the growth and survival of sandeel larvae.  However, as we argue in a new RSPB report (link at the end of the blog), the North Sea sandeel fishery is adding to the depletion of sandeels for kittiwakes, puffins and other sandeel-dependent seabirds, as well as whales, porpoises and commercially exploited fish such as cod. 

A shoal of small fish

Sandeel shoal in Orkney

The report calls for much stronger curbs on the fishery, with a preference for an outright ban on sandeel fishing in UK waters.  We also argue for a change in the methodology for setting annual catch limits for the sandeel fishery across the whole North Seas to ‘set aside’ a greater proportion of sandeel stocks to benefit the wider marine ecosystem. 

As we square up to what it means to be an independent coastal state outside of the EU and the Common Fisheries Policy, politicians in London and Edinburgh have committed to set ‘a gold standard for sustainable fishing around the world’ and to be ‘world-leading fishing nation’, pledging to take an ecosystem-based approach to management. In the case of Scottish Government this includes the welcome consideration of restricting or prohibiting fishing for key species such as sandeel.  It was doubly heartening to hear the new Cabinet Secretary for fisheries Mairi Gougeon MSP state under questioning in the Scottish Parliament last week that the Scottish Government does not support fishing for sandeel or other industrial species in our waters and that she had instructed officials to urgently examine what measures can be put in place. 

Puffin with a beak full of sandeels

Puffin with sandeels

With seabirds already feeling the squeeze of the climate emergency there has never been a more opportune time to translate this positive language into reality.  Reining in the sandeel fishery now would serve as an exemplar of that world-leading gold standard and a practical demonstration of delivering an approach to fisheries management that puts the recovery of nature front and centre.   

Put simply, it’s high time that commercial fishing adapted to nature, as nature cannot readily adapt to fishing.  

Read the report here:

RSPB2021_The case for stronger regulation of sandeel fisheries in UK waters.pdf
  • It is disappointing to see an inflammatory Brexit-based reason for requiring support for declining sand eel populations in recent statement by Alex Kinninmonth to media companies regarding decline of UK seabirds.  The fact that climate change is THE primary reason for sand eel deprivation became secondary in Alex's report blaming EU fishing boats.  That there is already a protected sand eel box to restrict fishing that was designated pre-Brexit (that we should be requesting to extend); That the RSPB report for why Puffins are in decline is not yet complete but were used as the cute "face" of this request, even though Puffins appear to collect sand eels from shallow waters (therefore not competing with trawlers?). It seems that Brexit was used to taunt a response from government - which I find a highly divisive way to try and protect animal species.  Flora and fauna belong to the Earth, not to specific countries.  As such we should be doing our best to find ways to collaborate on their protection.  The need to protect species from overfishing and climate change needs to be done in a fact-based and respectful way and not in an emotive one. If Climate Change is not prioritised, and gets diminished by more inflammatory, headline grabbing comments,  then removing every fishing boat on earth is not going to protect the ecosystem of the sea.  I speak as someone who has ceased eating all fish in my personal attempt at protecting our oceans.