Filey Bay

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Marine Site designations: SPA
Aerial view of RSPB Bempton Cliffs nature reserve


Filey Bay has given life to generations of seabirds, but in recent years it has also claimed many victims.

Every summer, seabirds come in their thousands to breed on the cliffs at Flamborough Head, Bempton and to the north of Filey Bay on the Yorkshire coast.

Between April and August each year the sheer cliffs teem with the sights, sounds and smells of breeding seabirds in a wildlife spectacle that is enjoyed by thousands of visitors. From these nest sites which are protected by law, guillemots, gannets, razorbills, puffins and kittiwakes head out to sea in search of food for their chicks and it’s into these waters that the young birds take their first tentative flights.    

Filey Bay is one of the areas visited by these seabirds to rest and feed. This bay is also home to a sea trout and salmon fishery which has been running for more than 100 years, with generations of families working within the bay. In the late 2000s, large numbers of seabirds, particularly razorbills and guillemots, getting entangled in fishing nets and sadly drowning.  

Our attempts to reduce seabird deaths

Over the last six years, the RSPB has been working with the fishery managers (the Environment Agency), Natural England and the Filey Bay netsmen to find measures that minimise seabird deaths, while still allowing the fishery to operate successfully.

The Environment Agency adopted a byelaw in 2010 prescribing a series of measures aimed at reducing the number of incidental seabird deaths. These measures include using special netting which is more visible to the birds (and in some cases has been found to increase fish catch), not fishing at night, attending the net at all times it is in the water (to allow the quick release of birds alive) and training for the netsman on safely releasing caught birds.

Since the introduction of the byelaw, levels of seabird bycatch have fallen dramatically and there has been a real effort by the netsmen to positively adopt and implement the measures of the byelaw. In fact, in recent years the number of seabirds released alive has exceeded the number of fatalities. 

Although the decline in seabird bycatch in Filey Bay over the last few years was due in no small part to factors relating to the byelaw and the great work by the fishermen, the low numbers of birds coming into the bay over the last three years have also played a significant part in these reductions.

With such low numbers of birds in the bay it has been difficult to ascertain what causes the birds to become trapped in the nets. As such we remain worried that if guillemots and razorbills return to the bay in previous large numbers, bycatch could become a threat once more.

A continuing effort

With that in mind the RSPB is still working closely with the netsmen in Filey Bay, trialling possible mitigation strategies and monitoring seabird and bycatch levels carefully.

The bycatch in Filey Bay is not an isolated event; hundreds of thousands of seabirds are killed every year in gillnet fisheries alone, representing a significant threat to their conservation. In spite of numerous reports of gillnet bycatch across the globe, very little research has been undertaken on mitigation measures that might reduce gillnet bycatch and this is just another reason the Filey Bay fishery case study is so important.

The success of the work at Filey Bay has demonstrated how collaboration between fishermen, government agencies and wildlife organisations can work together successfully are tantamount to reducing seabird bycatch. With information on bycatch mitigation in gillnet fisheries so sparse, our work at Filey Bay could potentially help address the issue nationally and even internationally. There is the potential for the work at Filey Bay to be significant on a regional, national and even global scale.



Why is it worth fighting for?

A large number of the birds which forage in Filey Bay during the summer months are part of the Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs colony, which is protected by European law as a Special Protection Area (SPA).

An extension to the SPA, known as Flamborough and Filey Coast potential SPA is currently awaiting designation. This will give additional protection to seabirds preening and foraging as it includes a 2km extension out to sea.  

We manage an important part of this huge colony, offering the public spectacular close-up views of nesting birds at Bempton Cliffs.

Boasting a breeding population of international importance, the reserve offers an awe-inspiring experience for the ever-growing number of visitors who come to witness the sights, sounds and smells of 200,000 breeding birds. 

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A view of the loch at Abernethy

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Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, on nest, Isle of May National Nature reserve

Our position

Concerned about the large numbers of incidental seabird deaths caused by fishing nets, we were committed to finding a solution which minimised this bycatch, while safeguarding the fishermen's livelihoods.

We worked with the Environment Agency (EA) who issued a voluntary Code of Conduct to the fishermen during the 2009 breeding season. The Code, aimed at reducing the numbers of seabirds getting caught up in nets, required the fishermen to make changes to the way they fish, particularly over the critical period of highest seabird by-catch (typically in June or early July).

The draft results of an independent monitoring programme, commissioned by EA, suggested that, if the measures set out in the Code of Conduct were followed by all of the fishermen, seabird-bycatch could be reduced significantly. Many of the fishermen entered into the spirit of the Code but since it was only voluntary it did not present a robust way of ensuring the measures are adhered to by all fishermen for the whole of the critical period.

As a result, we called for the introduction of a byelaw as a more effective way of minimising the number of incidental seabird deaths. This came into force in 2010.

What we achieved

In September 2009, the Environment Agency announced that it was proposing the introduction of a byelaw for Filey Bay, aimed at minimising seabird deaths in fishing nets during the critical period of the breeding season. We worked with Environment Agency throughout the byelaw consultation process to ensure it was fit for purpose. As a result, the adopted byelaw requires that, in the critical period of the month of June, fishermen must take their fishing nets out of the water overnight, attend their nets at all times when in the water and use nets made from high visibility material. 

We welcome EA's adoption of the byelaw as we have always believed that a byelaw introducing simple management measures for the fishery is the most effective mechanism to minimise incidental seabird deaths in Filey Bay, while maintaining a sustainable fishery.

The fishery and levels of bycatch have been closely monitored every year since the introduction of the byelaw. This monitoring has been vitally important following implementation of the new byelaw. Evidence from this monitoring has been used to evaluate significant reductions in seabird bycatch since the byelaw was introduced. 

Gannet Morus bassana, pair preening, Bass Rock


  • 2015
    Filey Bay monitoring by Wold Ecology, through the Environment Agency, continues at a reduced effort of three days a week. Seabird presence in the bay remains low, as does bycatch. The RSPB compile a Filey Bay report summarising the mitigation trialled and lessons learnt from working with the Filey netsmen as well as further bycatch mitigation measures which could be successful in reducing seabird bycatch in gillnet fisheries.

  • September 2014
    Rory Crawford (RSPB) and Filey netsmen Rex Harrison went to the Puget Sound, USA on a European Commission funded trip (via the GAP2 Exchange Programme). The trip's aim was to exchange ideas on seabird bycatch mitigation in gillnet fisheries, and follow-up on some of the published research on gillnet mitigation for birds, which was conducted in the 1990s by Ed Melvin of Washington State University. GAP2 filmed and documented the trip extensively. Watch the 'Understanding Seabird Bycatch in Gillnet Fisheries' film.

  • May-September 2014
    The RSPB hires a Safe Seas for Seabirds Officer, Vicky Brown, to work closely alongside the active netsman. Vicky was introduced to the workings of the fishery and discussed the issues surrounding seabird bycatch, both for the netsmen and the birds. Seabird bycatch numbers remained very low this season due to the byelaw and the good work from the netsmen. However there were also less birds in Filey Bay – the reasons for which are unknown and are being explored.
  • 2011-2013
    Regular monitoring of Filey Bay is conducted by Wold Ecology on behalf of the Environmental Agency, during June, the month of highest bycatch, when the byelaw is in force. Over these years, the netsmen gradually become more used to the bylaws and seabird bycatch within Filey Bay starts to decrease.

  • June 2010
    The Environment Agency adopt new byelaw for the 2010 season. Independent monitoring of seabird bycatch in Filey Bay is conducted by Wold Ecology, Ecological Consultancy, and Environment Agency staff.

  • January-May 2010
    The Environment Agency consult on a draft version of the byelaw.

  • September 2009
    The Environment Agency propose an introduction of a byelaw.

  • June-September 2009
    Independent monitoring of seabird bycatch in Filey Bay by ECON, an Ecological Consultancy.

  • May 2009
    The Environment Agency introduce a voluntary Code of Conduct for the fishermen to follow which includes measures such as taking nets out of the water at night.

  • June 2008
    We collect video footage as evidence of seabird-bycatch. The Environment Agency, responsible for managing the fishery, request a voluntary closure of the fishery during the peak by-catch period at the end of June. Fishermen agree to this and net operation is resumed once the risk of bycatch is lower.

  • 2006/7
    We are first alerted to the problem of seabird bycatch but have no concrete evidence to convince the authorities they must take action.