Nature charities 'fully support' fishing ban that could affect North East seabirds

A puffin with sandeels
A puffin with sandeels -Credit:PA

Nature charities have said that they fully support the Government's ban on sandeel fishing in the North Sea, following a challenge from the European commission.

The Government announced the closure of waters to sandeel fishing in the English North Sea and all of Scotland in January, with the move coming into force in late March. Sandeels are a key food source for seabirds such as puffins, razorbills, terns, kittiwakes and others that call the Northumberland Coast home.

However, sandeels are targeted by fishermen for their oil and use in feed for livestock and farmed salmon. The European Commission has requested a consultation with the UK to discuss the legitimacy of the closures, which conservationists have described as "shameful".

The closures have been implemented to all boats targeting the fish after expert advice that prohibiting fishing for sandeels in the North Sea will benefit seabirds, fish and marine mammals. The Government also believes it could improve seabirds' resilience in the face of bird flu - which has killed tens of thousands of birds in Northumberland alone.

The move is also a response to the UK failing on 11 out of 15 marine indicators for good environmental status, particularly on seabirds. A coalition of conservation organisations, which includes the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, say that the closures of the sand eel fisheries "throws a lifeline to UK seabirds" and are urging the EU to reconsider its present position.

Kirsten Carter, head of UK Marine Policy at the RSPB, said: "Sandeel fishery closures in the UK will throw a vital lifeline to seabird populations that have been hit repeatedly by pressures such as overfishing, climate change and Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza. The latest seabird census shows a decline of 62% across seabird species within the UK.

"This closure is the single greatest measure that can build resilience. We fully support the UK Government in staying the course on this vital issue and see this as a first step towards seabird recovery."

Joan Edwards, director of policy and public affairs at The Wildlife Trusts, said: "We strongly support the Government’s decision as a vital measure to boost sandeel populations and support wildlife recovery at sea.

"Sandeels are the backbone of marine ecosystems and a key food for commercial fish like cod, as well as marine mammals and seabirds. At a time when biodiversity is facing many threats, measures like this provide a lifeline to marine wildlife."

Stephen Westerberg, senior site manager at Coquet Island, one of Northumberland's vitally important seabird colonies, added: "The Sandeel fishing closure is brilliant news and comes after over twenty years of RSPB campaigning.

"Coquet Island is an important breeding site for lots of seabird species, many of which, such as the Roseate Terns, Puffins, Razorbills and Kittiwakes are in steep decline and rely on sandeels as their main food source. We need to do everything we can to protect all the seabirds on Coquet Island as well around the UK and globally and we will do everything we can to help protect these species and turn around their declines."

The UK Government has agreed to the EU's request for consultations, with a spokesperson saying: "We took the decision to close our North Sea waters to all sand eel fishing to protect seabirds.

"This closure is fully compliant with our obligations under the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement and applies equally to UK and non-UK vessels. This was a necessary step to safeguard vulnerable seabird populations, including species like kittiwakes who are at serious risk, and builds on domestic measures already in place – the UK has not allocated any quota to fish sand eel to UK vessels in three years."