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2 Aug 2023

End sandeel fishing to protect Scotland’s seabirds

Two puffins stand on a lichen-covered rock, facing each other. Both have fish in their stripy beaks.
Sandeel fishing is depleting an essential food source for seabirds such as puffins.
National Trust for Scotland members and supporters can play an important role in helping to end sandeel fishing in Scotland.

Scotland is home to more than 5 million breeding seabirds, including 24 internationally important species like great skua, black-legged kittiwake and northern gannet. Scotland’s seabirds are precious, but they face unprecedented threats. Our charity plays an active and important role in helping to protect them – it’s part of our work to enable nature to flourish and to speak up for heritage, which we committed to in our Nature, Heritage & Beauty for Everyone strategy.

A key pressure on seabird health is the lack of sandeel availability. The Trust recently called for an end to sandeel fishing, as have other organisations such as RSPB, so that this essential food source can replenish. We are thrilled to say that these calls have now been heard. The Scottish Government has recently launched a consultation asking the public if they agree that all sandeel fishing in Scotland should end – a massive step forward that will help to ensure the long-term conservation of Scotland’s seabirds.

So, why are sandeels, and this Scottish Government consultation, so important? Sandeels are an essential food source for many seabirds, like puffins and kittiwakes, but levels of fishing and climate change have depleted their numbers. This means seabirds are unable to find enough food or they must fly further out to sea for food, which is very risky for them.

The consequences of this are dire. As just one example, kittiwake numbers across the UK have fallen by half since the 1960s, mainly because of diminished food availability – they are now classified as at risk of extinction by BirdLife International. Our own meticulous annual monitoring of seabird numbers at St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve, one of the largest colonies of kittiwakes on the east coast of Scotland, has shown that kittiwake numbers have decreased by 74% between 1989 and 2020.

Against this background, the Trust believes that ending sandeel fishing is an easy opportunity to help seabirds to forage more fish, which will help them raise stronger, healthier chicks and better prepare for the leaner winter months. Since no Scottish boats fish for sandeels (they are fished exclusively by boats from other parts of Europe), there should be no negative impact on Scottish fishing communities.

On top of sandeel fishing being bad for seabirds, the 238,000 tonnes of sandeel that were fished in 2020 were either mulched for fish farm feed or burned in industrial burners for generating electricity, a highly unsustainable practice.

Dr Ellie Owen, the National Trust for Scotland’s Senior Seabird Officer, is encouraging the public to support the Scottish Government’s proposal to end sandeel fishing. She explains: ‘Leaving more fish in the sea for the seabirds to eat will help them successfully raise their chicks and could bolster the adults against starvation outside of the breeding season too. The best thing is that the closure would not adversely affect the Scottish fishing community as the fishery is carried out by boats from elsewhere in Europe.’

“Ending sandeel fishing is the single best thing we could do for our seabirds right now in Scotland, to help them in light of the multiple threats they are facing.”
Dr Ellie Owen
Senior Seabird Officer, National Trust for Scotland
A woman wearing a red helmet and red floatation jacket stands on a rocky ledge beside a sea inlet. Large rock stacks stand just off shore behind her.

The Scottish Government consultation is live until Friday 13 October 2023, and we will be submitting our own response in support of the proposed end to sandeel fishing. We also encourage you to respond as well, and play your own part in helping to protect Scotland’s precious seabirds.

Read and respond to the Scottish Government consultation

You can also help whilst youre out and about this summer. We would love you to submit photos of seabirds carrying fish at any National Trust for Scotland place. This will help us monitor what food seabirds are finding to feed their chicks. Find out more in our Seabirds, Camera, Action! story

Listen to Season 6, Episode 7 of our Love Scotland podcast where presenter Jackie Bird travels to St Abb’s Head to find out how our rangers and other National Trust for Scotland staff are helping in the fight against avian influenza.

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