Sandeel Review

Kittiwakes, puffins and razorbills are some of England’s most treasured seabirds that could benefit from proposed measures to ban sandeel fishing. The Defra announcement (Tuesday 7 March) comes ahead of a new BBC wildlife documentary Wild Isles, presented by Sir David Attenborough, that will explore how ecosystems and habitats support wildlife around the UK, including the importance of sandeels for our puffin population.

Sandeel is the common name for a considerable number of species of small fish. While they are not true eels, they are eel-like in their appearance and can grow up to 30cm. They are a vital food source to seabirds, to commercially important fish species such as haddock and whiting, and to sea mammals including seals and whales. Sandeel numbers are under pressure from industrial fishing in the North Sea. All species of sandeels are used extensively in the fish oil and fishmeal industries – for the production of animal foods and fertilisers. Their bodies are rich in lipids which makes them an ideal fish for these purposes. Without effective management measures, this fishing threatens marine ecosystems and poses a risk to the breeding success and population resilience of UK seabirds – most notably, kittiwakes.

The government has launched a three-month consultation on the issue of a ban on industrial fishing for sandeels in the North Sea. . The National Federation of Fishing Organisations (NFFO) chief executive, Barry Deas said that sandeels are not targeted by UK vessels. “They’re mainly targeted by the Danes,” he said. “I do not think there will be many voices raised here in opposition.”

The Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “This consultation is an important step in securing seabird protection and delivering our commitment in the Environment Improvement Plan to halt the decline of nature and allow wildlife to thrive”.

The RSPB raised the issue in a briefing paper in June 2021. In response to the news, it said:” This is huge news for the UK’s efforts to save our iconic seabirds. Decades of increasing ‘human-induced’ pressures in our busy seas have left our seabirds in a precarious state, and a ban on industrial trawling for sandeels would throw our most threatened seabirds a lifeline in the face of mounting pressures in our seas. This is a crucial moment; after last year’s devastating outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu and with major new offshore energy developments planned, there is an urgent need to build the resilience of our seabird colonies as well as helping to rebuild the overall health of the North Sea for all marine wildlife. Defra are to be congratulated in coming forward with this consultation, which is a vital first step in securing the UK-wide ban our seabirds need.”

Greenpeace have launched a petition to demonstrate to DEFRA the strength of public feeling in support of seabirds and against industrial sandeel fishing in our waters (final link below).

According to experts at Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, seabird abundance could increase within 10 years as a result of the full banning of industrial sandeel fishing in UK waters.