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Puffins under threat as European boats overfish in UK waters post Brexit, RSPB warns

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Overfishing by Scandinavian boats in UK waters is threatening the puffin bird, according to wildlife conservation groups.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has renewed calls for “urgent action” to curb the fishing practices of boats from countries such as Denmark and Norway.

Under EU quota arrangements that have continued through Brexit, fishing boats from abroad have an almost exclusive access to sand eel fishing off the UK coast.

A puffin on the Farne Islands holds fish in its beak. Breeding Arctic terns, puffins, guillemots and shags all suffered losses due to significant rainfall on the Farne Islands earlier this month as the chicks and pufflings (baby puffins) were at their most vulnerable. 125mm of rainfall fell in just 24 hours on 13 June 2019, five times the amount that fell in the whole of June the previous year (24.8mm).
Image: Puffins are under threat due to European overfishing in UK waters

The sand eel is the primary foodstuff of the puffin and other seabirds but its supplies have already been affected by climate change.

Conservationists say that warmer seas have led to a reduction in numbers near the coastline and they have warned that systematic overfishing is further depriving species, like puffins, already threatened with extinction.

Alex Kinninmonth, Head of Marine Policy at RSPB in Scotland, told Sky News: “Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sand eels are taken out of the North Sea annually and that’s having an impact on seabirds and other wildlife.”

“For many years, there’s been a huge industrial fishery in the North Sea, mainly for boats from Denmark and a few from Sweden and other EU nations.”

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“It’s an industrial fishery, not for human consumption. It’s broken down into fishmeal and fish oil that goes into all sorts of industrial processes like agricultural feed and fertiliser.”

“There is a big problem with it because it’s in conflict with wildlife conservation. There are far too many fish being taken out of the sea and not enough being left behind to sustain thriving seabird populations.

baby puffin: EU fishing causes puffin population loss
Image: Puffins rely on sand eels to feed their chicks

“One of the options available to ministers across the UK is to manage our fisheries in our own water after Brexit, so we could close UK waters to sand eel fishing.

“That would have the biggest gains for the most amount UK waters, that would be our preferred option but we don’t underestimate the political challenge to that – there are all sorts of political arrangements around access to waters.

“What governments could do is work with partners across the North Sea to improve the scientific evidence, to make sure there’s a ‘set aside’ for seabirds when setting the annual catch limits for sand eel fishing in the North Sea.”

Mr Kinninmonth added: “We’re currently in a nature, climate emergency so it’s really not acceptable for governments to allow industrial fisheries to operate in a way that’s having an impact on our wildlife. We’re running out of time to save seabirds and a host of other wildlife that’s in critical decline.”

There are areas of UK waters that are closed to sand eel fishing but conservationists want that extended to a complete ban.

The Scottish government has said it will look into the issue as a matter of urgency.

An Atlantic Puffin is seen in the rain on Skomer Island, off the coast of Pembrokeshire, Wales, Britain, May 24, 2021. Picture taken May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Image: A government spokesperson said they are working with European countries ‘to manage shared stocks in a sustainable way’

Rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon told the Scottish Parliament on 9 June: “I completely understand the concern regarding sand eels because it is about the wider ecosystem and the impact that has on species whose numbers are depleting. We will be looking at this as a matter of urgency to see what measures we can potentially put in place.”

A spokesperson for the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told Sky News: “Sand eels play a vital role in the marine food chain, and we are committed to working closely with our partners including the EU, Norway and the Faroe Islands to manage shared stocks in a sustainable way.”