Posted: 1 March, 2024 | Category: Current News Category: Features & Analysis

A puffin at Bempton Cliffs.  This much loved sea bird, along with tens of thousands more, could face extinction. 


By Trevor Grundy


BEMPTON CLIFFS, Yorkshire, England – – – The UK and Scottish Governments’ decision to close sand eel fisheries in the English waters of the North Sea and all Scottish waters on March 26 this year comes after more than 25 years of campaigning by members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

A statement issued by the RSPB earlier this year said that ending the industrial fishing of sand eels is “just one necessary step in the effort to safeguard seabirds as they come under a barrage of existential pressures, including climate change, bird flu and poorly planned offshore marine development.”

Last year, a seabird census found that more than half the seabird species breeding on British and Irish coasts have declined over the last 20 years. In Scotland, which is home to over half of all UK seabirds, this figure rises to 70 percent of species in decline. Shockingly, around one in four puffins have been lost from across the UK since 2000 and both puffins and kittiwakes are threatened with global extinction.

The March 26 fisheries ban is seen as a victory for thousands of British conservationists who have spent time and money lobbying MPs and councillors to do something meaningful to slow down, or even halt, the demise of some of the world’s most magnificent and best-known seabirds and mammals.

Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire (Picture: Trevor Grundy)


The RSPB Chief Executive Beccy Speight said in a statement earlier this year, “To support the recovery of our seabirds, the RSPB has long recommended an end to industrial sand eel fishing in UK water to secure vital food sources for these amazing birds. It’s a call that was backed by tens of thousands of our members and supporters and demonstrates the huge public support for actions that drive nature’s recovery.”

The Director of RSPB in Scotland, Anne McCall, added, “With over 70 percent of Scottish seabird populations in decline, ending industrial sand eel fishing is the single greatest action that can be taken to support our most vulnerable seabirds right now.”

Conservationists at Yorkshire’s famous Bempton Cliffs told me that the closure of industrial sand eel fisheries is a victory for conservationists and recognition of the need to act now to save our seabirds and to tackle unsustainable fishing.

“While there are many more challenges to overcome,“ said a RSPG spokesperson,  “this is a crucial step in the long journey to restore our natural world and reverse the decline in wildlife.”

Sand eels – the little fish with huge economic importance

 Most people know little about sand eels but these tiny fish play an important role in many marine ecosystems.

They are indispensable as a raw material diet the European fishmeal industry. Their high fat content means that sand eels make nutritious food for many predatory fish, seabirds and marine mammals.

Almost every nature lover in the world has seen images of puffins carrying multiple sand eels in their colourful beaks.

One puffin was spitted here with 36 sand eels in its mouth. Surely an entry in the Puffin Guinness Book of Records

And its not only nature’s flying and diving predators who want this tiny and fish in their mouths and then into the stomachs of their young.

Humans are another major exploiter of the sand eel, catching the fish mainly for use as bait for longline and sports fishing and as an important target species for so-called industrial fishing.

Kittiwakes as well as puffins and various sea mammals face disaster without the right food and habitat.


Danish industrial fishing is the main user of sand eels.

During the 18-week sand eel fishing season in 2020 (it began on April 1 and ended on July 31) approximately 238,000 tonnes of fish ere landed by Danish and foreign fishing vessels in Danish ports for that country’s fishmeal industry,

About 171,000 tonnes was landed by Danish fishing vessels, 39,700 tonnes by Norwegians and 23,500 tonnes by Swedish fishing vessels as well as 3,100 tonne by vessels of other nationalities.

Denmark is the most important industrial fishing nation in the European Union (EU) and accounts for a large part of the catch quota for the species. In 2019, its share made up approximately 84 percent of the EU landings for this sector. Industrial fishing, therefore, makes up a significant proportion of the Danish fishing sector.

So, Danish fishing has been left fuming after the UK and Scottish government slapped their ban on North Sea sand eel fisheries.

The Danish Fisherman’s Organisation (DFA) and the Danish Pelagic Producers’ Organisation ( DPPO) and Marine Ingredients Denmark have condemned the ban, claiming  that the UK is in contravention of the UK -EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement ( TCA).

In a joint statement, they said: “When the EU and Great Britain reached an agreement on the conditions for BREXIT, it was a decisive element that EU fisherman could continue to fish in British waters. The UK is now running from that agreement and will ban fishing for sand eels on the British part of the Dogger Bank from March 26 this year.”

The fight between the Danes and the Brits has started.

How it will end we do not know but for the time being RSPB members and supporters are enjoying a well-deserved victory.



(Trevor Grundy is a life member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and a member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). He lived and worked as a journalist in  Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996 and now lives in Beverley, Yorkshire, England).