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May 30, 2023

Sandeels for sea life: A UK sandeel fishing ban is good for all


Banning industrial sandeel fishing in UK waters is a no-brainer. These small fish are the foundation of food webs across the ocean, with wildlife from cod to porpoises to puffins relying heavily on them. That’s why we’ve partnered with ten other NGOs to call on the UK government to ban industrial sandeel fishing in all UK waters and let these vital fish populations recover.

Sandeels are tiny fish in a vast ocean – but their impact is immense. These nutrient-rich fish are the mainstay of many marine ecosystems, and without them some of our most celebrated ocean wildlife would starve. Sandeels provide up to half the diet of whales such as humpback and minke, for instance, and up to nearly a third of the diet of seals and seabirds.

Many of these animals are already struggling because of dwindling populations of sandeels. Sharp declines in these small but vital fish are now being seen all around the UK, as the impacts of targeted industrial sandeel fishing – mainly by Danish vessels, which take three quarters of the catch – are combined with the side effects of other destructive practices, such as bottom trawling.

This has knock-on effects up the ocean food chain. In some areas, puffins are having to make much longer feeding trips to find the sandeels they and their chicks need. For harbour porpoises, not enough sandeels in spring means they are more likely to starve. Kittiwakes, delicate seabirds who’s calls sound like their name, are especially hard hit since 60% of their diet is sandeels. In the UK, kittiwake populations are estimated to have declined by 69% between 1986-2019.

The ban on all industrial sandeel fishing, which is generally done by large vessels typically over 40 metres in length, could reverse these devastating impacts and put us on a path to flourishing seas. We already know that in places where sandeel populations have been allowed to recover through fishery closures, such as off the east coast of Scotland, we have seen positive results – like more chicks raised in kittiwake colonies.

Since 2021, no UK vessels have fished for sandeels, so the ban would primarily affect Danish trawlers that catch these fish to be made into feed for livestock and farmed salmon. It could, however, boost UK cod and haddock fisheries and as well as coastal livelihoods that rely on wildlife tourism.

Our marine life is already facing multiple severe threats: from industrial fishing to the climate crisis, diseases like avian flu and pollution of many kinds. Protecting sandeels is a vital part of building the resilience of our seas.

“Sandeels play a vital role in North Sea food webs and protecting them also protects a host of other marine species,” said Melissa Moore, head of policy for Oceana in the UK. “Defra has taken the right  step in proposing a ban  and now needs to ensure this happens, not just in the North Sea but throughout UK waters, working in partnership with the devolved administrations.”

The strength of feeling is clear: more than 174,000 people have signed up via the RSPB and Greenpeace to back the ban. Defra must now make this a reality and safeguard our sandeels for the future of our seas.