The closure of sandeel fisheries: our legacy of campaigning

In 2024, we announced a historic win – following many years of campaigning in England and Scotland, industrial sandeel fisheries are now closed in the English waters of the North Sea and all Scottish waters. This is great news for seabirds such as Puffins and Kittiwakes.

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A Lesser Sandeel shoal in waters at Orkney.
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It all started in 1996...

When the RSPB’s then Head of Marine Policy, Euan Dunn, attended a ground-breaking meeting in Bergen, Norway. Here, fisheries scientists concluded that a Danish-led fishery in the North Sea was not sustainable, declaring that: “it would seem precautionary to close areas in the vicinity of these colonies to fishing – until more is known about sandeel stock structure and the interactions between sandeels and seabirds”.

Following this, in 2000, a sandeel ‘box’ was created, excluding sandeel fishing from more than 20,000 square kilometres of sea off the east coast of Scotland and north-east England. This is an area where there was a concern over the plummeting numbers of Kittiwakes. Since 2000, UK Kittiwake numbers have continued to fall.

Since then, we’ve campaigned tirelessly to close industrial sandeel fisheries, due to their effects on sandeels and the marine ecosystem.

In 2019, UK fishers were banned from commercial sandeel fishing – but other vessels from other nations were still allowed to continue.

In 2020, 12 new Marine Protected Areas were designated in Scotland, offering further protection for sandeels.

In 2021, we published Revive our Seas. This report clearly showed the link between the decline in seabirds and the reduced availability of sandeels. It called for urgent government action and stronger regulation of sandeel fisheries in UK waters.

In 2023, Sir David Attenborough highlighted the pressures facing our seabirds and the critical role of sandeels in marine ecosystems in the BBC TV series Wild Isles.

A Puffin standing on a rock, its beak full of sandeels.

The UK Government ran a public consultation to close sandeel fishing in the English waters of the North Sea. More than 33,000 of you responded to the consultation. 8,000 RSPB supporters also took to social media to tell their MPs how they felt. 95.5% of those who responded to the UK Government’s consultation were in favour of a closure of sandeel fisheries.

The Scottish Government also ran a consultation proposing to end sandeel fishing across all Scottish waters. Together, with over 10,359 RSPB supporters, we responded in favour of ending industrial sandeel trawling in Scottish waters. The consultation reported almost unanimous support for the move, 97% in fact.

The Seabird Census was also published, which sadly showed that around one in four Puffins have been lost in the UK since 2000. Puffins and Kittiwakes, which depend on sandeels, are threatened with global extinction and are on the Red List of Conservation Concern. It also showed that 62% of seabird species breeding in the UK have declined, with that figure rising to 70% in Scotland. The survey was led by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) with input and support from other partner organisations, including the RSPB.  

A lone Kittiwake perched on a rock, looking out to sea.

What are sandeels and why are they important?

First of all, sandeels aren’t really eels. They’re a variety of species of small, oil-rich fish, and highly nutritious to seabirds. They mostly feed on plankton, building up fat reserves that make them excellent food for seabirds such as Puffins and Kittiwakes. The ‘sand’ part of their name comes from their behaviour of burying themselves in sand to escape from predators.

Kittiwakes are particularly dependent on sandeels, and sadly their UK numbers have fallen by half since the 1960s. The decline in numbers of sandeels during the breeding season is thought to be one of the causes of this.

Where you come in

Campaigning works best when all types of people get behind the cause – so you’re also part of our success. This success would not be possible without the 43,000 of you who joined our call, responding to the UK and Scottish government consultations to end industrial sandeel fishing was integral to showing the overwhelming support across the UK for this practice to stop.

A pile of recently caught sandeel on top of fishing net.

So… are seabirds safe?

Well – not yet. Whilst this is a crucial step, there is still a lot more to be done to ensure seabirds are safe. They’re under threat from: 

  • Being incidentally caught in fishing gear
  • Adverse impacts from climate change like: warming sea temperatures which can affect food supplies (including sandeels)
  • Extreme weather events such as hurricanes affecting nest sites
  • Avian Flu
  • Marine developments offshore
  • Ground-nesting seabirds on islands are also threatened by invasive predators, such as rats, if they’ve been introduced by humans to the area

To help our struggling seabirds, it’s vital that our governments act. This includes monitoring important prey species like sandeels, restoring islands from invasive predators, and addressing the thousands of seabirds that are caught in fishing gear every year.

A new threat to seabirds

In recent days, a new threat has emerged. The EU Commission has asked to hold talks with the UK over the decision to stop sandeel fishing. These are due to take place over the next 30 days. 

Any changes to the long-awaited sandeel fisheries closure is unacceptable. It is a lifeline our seabirds desperately need and we’ve called on the UK Government to stand firm. As discussions between the UK and EU take place, we will continue to speak out on why the full closure across the English North Sea and all of Scottish waters must remain in place. 

You can read our latest statement on the EU Commission’s challenge here.

Do you want to do more?

Sign up to become a campaigner with the RSPB here.

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An Arctic Tern with a sandeel in its beak.
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