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Nature charities back UK pressing ahead with world-leading sandeel protections, despite EU legal pressure

30 April 2024

19 UK and 16 EU conservation groups, are today announcing their strong support for the UK Government committing to closing Scottish and English North Sea waters to sandeel fishing, in the face of EU opposition to the action. The nature groups (including the RSPB, ClientEarth, Oceana UK, Birdlife International, and the Marine Conservation Society) are calling on the EU to follow suit on the UK’s world-leading action on sandeel fishery closures rather than attempting to block them.[1]

Read full statement here.

The UK Government announced the closing of all Scottish waters and the English North Sea to sandeel fishing in January 2024, and this came into force on 26th March 2024. The closure is welcomed by environmentalists as a major step forward in protecting at risk seabirds and marine mammals and essential to protecting the future of sandeel reliant UK fishing stocks. Yet, on the 16th April, the EU Commission requested consultation with the UK to discuss the legitimacy of the closures under the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The challenge has left conservation groups concerned that the UK will be forced to backtrack on its progress as a result.

The UK is failing on 11 out of 15 marine indicators for Good Environmental Status (GES), performing particularly badly on seabird populations.[2] So the UK’s positive moves on sandeels, which would benefit vulnerable seabirds, has been particularly welcomed by marine experts as a step toward improving GES.

Nature experts are warning that the EU should follow suit on taking measures to protect the marine environment to meet its own GES commitments. Very few EU nations are currently meeting GES, with approximately 33% of seabird populations in Europe in decline and 22% regarded as 'threatened’.[3] Yet despite the importance of sandeels to European seabirds no such fishing closures are planned, with campaigners calling the EU out on this.[4]

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.”

Hugo Tagholm, executive director of Oceana UK, said:
“The industrial extraction of sandeels causes untold damage to our seas: these fish are the mainstay of marine food webs that support wildlife from cod to kittiwakes. The UK has taken progressive and important action in ending the commercial fishing of sandeels and we urge the government to stand strong in the face of these retrogressive challenges from the EU, which are clearly driven by aggressive tactics from the industrial fisheries lobby.

Calum Duncan, Head of Policy and Advocacy at Marine Conservation Society and Convenor of Scottish Environment Link’s Marine Group, said:
“It is hugely heartening to see the UK Government standing firm on an issue which could have such major benefits to UK marine wildlife. Scotland's seas are home to internationally important populations of seals, whales and around a third of Europe's seabirds. The importance of sandeels in our marine ecosystems cannot be overstated and are recognised as a priority in Scotland due to their critical role in the food chain. We cannot afford to remain passive bystanders as the life within our seas continues to decline. Closing sandeel fishing is a key step not only for the UK but for the global effort to reverse the decline of nature and help address the climate emergency.”

Ariel Brunner, Director of BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, said: "The EU's decision to challenge such a positive measure is simply shameful. The European Commission is seeking to prevent the UK from taking urgently needed action which the EU itself should have taken long ago. The EU seems willing to destroy nature for the sake of a handful of short-term private interests, in complete disregard of its own commitments towards marine protection."

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said : “It is hugely disappointing that the EU, which has so often led on marine protection, has chosen to challenge this positive, dynamic step from the UK Government. We sympathise with economic concerns, but sandeel fishery closures will ultimately boost many fish stocks including Haddock and Whiting, providing a more reliable future for the fishing industry in these waters, and help restore struggling seabird and mammal populations."

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.” “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.”

Sandeels are a key part of the UK ocean food chain, supporting internationally important and vulnerable species including Puffins, Kittiwakes, and Razorbills. While providing an all important lifeline for threatened populations of seabirds, the benefits of more sandeel extends to support wider biodiversity within UK waters, offering a vital food source for seals, porpoises and whales, and important fish species like Haddock and Whiting.

The decision to close industrial sandeel fishing comes at a critical time for seabird populations as an alarming 62% of breeding seabird species have declined across the UK. In Scotland, our seabird stronghold, declines are as much as 70%. Sandeel dependent species like Puffins and Kittiwakes have declined by 23% and 43% respectively, in the last few decades. Unsustainable fishing pressure is recognised as a key driver for these declines, and the reduced availability of sandeel has been repeatedly linked to the declining seabird populations that use the North Sea to forage.

The outbreak of avian flu has further compounded the issue, with devastating impacts for many already declining seabird populations and a reversal in previously positive population trends for some species. Tens of thousands of seabirds have been killed by the virus in the UK, including at least 11,000 Gannets, and at least 2,500 Great Skuas in Scotland. The unprecedented and devastating effects of avian flu on seabirds illustrate that the resilience is extremely low, further demonstrating the timely importance of the sandeel closures to help restore these seabird populations.

Notes to editors:

Photos illustrating seabird declines and at-risk species that would benefit from sandeel fishery closures can be found here. All photos to be credited to photographer and RSPB credit (detailed in filenames)

  1. List of organisations signing on to the joint statement. 
    1. UK: RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, Pew Charitable Trusts UK, ClientEarth, Blue Marine Foundation, Scottish Environment LINK, Wildlife and Countryside Link, Marine Conservation Society UK, Whale and Dolphin Conservation UK, The Shark Trust, BirdLife International, Oceana UK, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Seabird Centre, Environmental Justice Foundation UK, Northern Ireland Marine Task Force, Open Sea, National Trust for Scotland, and Seas at Risk. 
    2. EU: Whale and Dolphin Conservation Germany, BirdLife Sweden, Association BIOM, Bloom Association, Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS), Vogelbescherming Nederland (VBN), Green Cross France and Territories, Fuglavernd – BirdLife Iceland, BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, Longitude 181, DOF BirdLife (Dansk Ornitologisk Forening), Défense des Milieux Aquatiques, BirdWatch Ireland, Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA), Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), Doggerland Foundation and SEO BirdLife.
  2. The Good Environmental Status indicators fall under the under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in the EU and were retained through the UK Marine Strategy.
  3. Source: BirdLife International, 2015, European Red List of Birds, Publications Office of the European Union, LuxembourgSeabirds are defined as pelagic feeding and surface water feeding, from 2018 data for pelagic feeding 12 EU member states achieved GES, 11 did not reach GES & 18 were not assessed. For surface water 7 achieved GES, 14 did not and 17 were not assessed.
  4. The Marine Conservation Society, Seas At Risk and Oceana recently published analysis of commercial fishing data, concluding that bottom trawling was still taking place in 90% of offshore EU marine protected areas, despite the 2023 EU Marine Action Plan that calls for phasing the practice out by 2030.


  • 2022’s seabird census identified that 62% of UK breeding seabird species have declined over the last 20 years. In Scotland, where over half of UK seabirds live, this rises to 70% of species in decline.
  • Around one in four Puffins have been lost from across the UK since 2000. The number of Puffins in the UK has declined by 23% in the last two decades and other sandeel dependent species like Kittiwakes have declined by 43%.
  • Half of the top 10 fish on which the UK fishing industry relies, including North East Atlantic blue whiting, have either been overfished or depleted to a critically low state according to an Oceana report.

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