In recent reports the RSPB claim that climate change is altering the availability of sandeels and causing seabirds such as kittiwakes, Arctic terns and Arctic skuas to fail to breed successfully.
The evidence seems to be much stronger for overfishing to be the cause of these failures, and the RSPB, by avoiding the elephant in the room, may be damaging the long-term recovery plan for seabirds.
In most RSPB reports there is often no mention that overfishing is also a likely cause. It makes you wonder whether there are political motives for this blinkered stance? An analogy would be like blaming climate change instead of industrialised intensive farming since the 1950’s for the decline in British birds.
The sandeel fishery has now become by far the biggest single-species fishery in the North Sea, with landings accounting for one-third of all fish landed. The vast majority of this catch is landed and processed in Denmark. Such fundamental changes in the fabric of the marine ecosystem are what ecologists refer to as ‘fishing down the food web’.
Since 1977, total yearly North Sea sandeel catches have fluctuated around 600,000-800,000 tonnes, but since 2003 catches have crashed dramatically to between 200,000-300,000 tonnes. The collapse of the fishery was particularly severe in the Norwegian economical zone with a 95% reduction in landings in 2005.
Many scientists and ecologists believe that the recent disastrous breeding seasons for many of Europe’s seabird colonies can be directly linked to the industrial fishing of sandeels in the North Sea.
As early as 1997, two respected Danish fisheries scientists – Henrik Gislason and Eskild Kirkegaard – were highly critical of the North Sea sandeel fishery, and they concluded that “it cannot be ruled out that fishing could adversely effect the breeding success of the birds. It would therefore be precautionary to close areas to fishing until more is known about sandeel stock structure and interactions between sandeels and seabirds”.
And a report published by the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES) says that “the amount of industrial fish species taken by fishermen in the North Sea appears to leave little for seabirds and marine mammals”.
The UK has some of the most significant seabird populations in the world, and discovering the exact cause of their decline is essential if we want to implement an effective recovery plan. If the RSPB have got the diagnosis wrong, then we will probably end up with a dead patient.