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Industrial Fishing Of Sandeels Is To Blame For Seabird Declines, Not Climate Change

December 6, 2017
tags: ,

By Paul Homewood

Back to that RSPB report:


According to Yahoo:

The report went on: “The UK’s kittiwake population has declined by 70% since 1986 because of falling breeding success and adult survival.

“Climate change has reduced the availability of the sandeels they rely upon in the breeding season.

“Other species that feed largely on sandeels, such as Arctic skua, Arctic tern and puffin, are at high risk of climate-related decline.”

So let’s take a close look at puffins in particular.

The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), published a report in 2011, based on the Seabird 2000 Census. They included two maps, showing the distribution of Atlantic puffins:


The first thing to note is that puffins are well distributed around the British Isles. Although there are many more around Scotland, this is due to the ready availability of suitable habitats.

Waters around the the south west of Wales and Ireland are much warmer than in the North Sea off the east coast of Scotland. Yet that seems to have no effect on the puffins which live in the former.

The map below showing population change also indicates that around Scotland there has been a mixed bag where some locations have seen increases at the same time as other areas close by have seen the opposite.


Since 2002, the puffins appear to have continued thriving in South Wales.

In 2009, the Telegraph reported:

Thousands of birds began leaving Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire over the weekend.

Unlike the rest of the UK, the number of puffins on the island has soared in recent years – leaving conservationists baffled.

The island currently has a puffin population of more than 13,500 – up from 10,000 last year – with more expected to arrive next March.

Jo Milborrow, from the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, said: "We’re delighted that the numbers keep growing but we don’t really know why.

"We think it may be because of the increased numbers of sandeels which the puffins feed on.

And Latest estimates continue to show that puffins are thriving on Skomer.

Clearly there is no evidence here of a consistent climate change signal.

But there is a very real factor, which goes a long way to explain the decline in population in the North Sea.

Sandeels comprise a large proportion of the diet of Atlantic puffins, but since the 1970s they have been subject to heavy, industrial fishing in the North Sea, predominantly by Denmark.


Although attempts have since been made to restrict the harvest of sandeels, the horse has already bolted.

In 2013, a study by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee found that fishing of sandeels was still having a significant impact on the population of birds such as the Arctic tern, little tern, common tern, sandwich tern, kittiwake, common guillemot, shag and fulmar.

Significantly they also found that seabirds breeding on the UK’s western colonies were faring better than those on the North Sea coast.

One more study of relevance came in 1998, “Status of the Puffin Fratercula Acrtica on the Isle of May National Nature Preserve” by Harris and Wanless, which stated:

“The history of the puffin on the Isle of May is well documented … in 1883 there were 30-40 pairs … the population was put at 5-10 pairs in the early 1950s but in 1957-58 at least 50 pairs attempted to form a colony. This attempt was brief and unsuccessful and in 1960 there were only a few pairs.”

[The Isle of May is in the Firth of Forth, which has been one of the main areas of concern in recent years.]


So this largest puffin colony in the UK barely existed until the 1970s when both global warming and the puffin population took off. Any population decrease since 1998 must be seen in this longer term context.

To be fair, this new RSPB study does admit that many species of birds are thriving because of a warmer climate.

Inevitably, rare species are, by definition, vulnerable to any environmental change, purely because their numbers are so small. But in these examples quoted, there is no evidence that they are under threat from climate change.

It is often claimed that animals are “forced” to migrate because the weather is too hot or not cold enough. In fact, this is usually a gross distortion of the truth. A warmer climate allows birds to populate areas previously too cold to live or breed in.

As such, the birds’ habitat range is generally expanded. When this happens, there may be a tendency to favour the new areas, where there is less competition for food. As a consequence, population levels may fall in some of the warmer regions previously inhabited.

Climate change may well see a redistribution of birds, with some species disappearing from certain regions to be replaced by others. But there is little evidence that any are under any direct threat as a result.




There is one more study of relevance, Decline in an Atlantic Puffin Population: Evaluation of Magnitude and Mechanisms, by Miles et al in 2015.

They studied puffins on Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and found that the decline in the puffin population coincided with an increase in the numbers of Great Skuas, who just so happen to prey on the poor puffins and other seabirds.





Great Skuas also like to eat other birds under threat, like Kittiwakes.




It may be that the Skua population took off as a result of the increase in the number of puffins already noted in the 1970s.

  1. HotScot permalink
    December 6, 2017 7:50 pm

    Have this framed on our wall, as did my late mother and father in law. It was a print, now a greeting card.

    • HotScot permalink
      December 6, 2017 7:56 pm

      Sorry, the point is, it always makes me smile, but even more so now as puffins don’t give a monkeys about climate change, just their source of food.

      Which makes me think of a question.

      Whilst the planet has greened by 14% in the last 30 years thanks to increased atmospheric CO2 according to NASA (I also read elsewhere that plants are 20% bigger thanks to increased atmospheric CO2), has their been a positive impact on marine life due to increased atmospheric CO2?

      • thedude permalink
        December 6, 2017 8:50 pm

        I read a study somewhere from a marine biologist – I’d have to look for it and I don’t remember the numbers – that explained that more CO2 in the ocean allows for more growth of hard corals, which utilize calcium carbonate.

        A large part of sealife exists in some part on plankton. I wonder how much their numbers have increased, using photosynthesis and all.

        How many times have we heard that CO2 kills the oceans with no real answer why?

      • dave permalink
        December 7, 2017 8:31 am

        There is no shortage of carbon in the oceans. A little more or less of dissolved CO2* makes no difference. The problem – from the point of view of the life there – is that organic carbon tends to FALL OUT** of the light zone where it can be used by photosynthtic plankton. So, useable carbon in the upper layer is a limiting factor for productivity.

        *Actually, CO2 does not really DISSOLVE in water. If you allow CO2 and pure water to come to equilibrium, 97% of the gas which enters the water will be found to be present therein in a completely unchanged molecular form. The idea that CO2 rushes to change to carbonic acid is just rubbish, as any Laboratory Handbook of chemical facts will tell you. The first dissociation constant is 1.7 x 10^(-3).

        Curiously, scientists in the 19th century did use to refer to carbon dioxide gas as “carbonic acid.” But they did not know better. Sea water is not pure water, of course; it contains many different ions, and the exact equilibria need to be worked out with a (fairly simple) computer program which solves the simultaneous equations. The take-home point from those calculations is that the system is massively “buffered” by carbonate ions from eroded rocks, which have been washed into the oceans in the geological cycle. The first dissociation constant of carbon dioxide in seawater is 1.2 x 10^(-3).

        ** A large amount is moved downwards, also. through the simple mechanism of mesopelagic organsims feeding in the upper layers for a while and then moving down and pooping in the lower layers for the rest of the time. This process will scrub all “excess” CO2 from the atmosphere and the surface layers of the oceans in only a few centuries, when the human race disappears.

      • catweazle666 permalink
        December 8, 2017 5:43 pm

        Solubility of CO2 in sea water

        Click to access chapter2.pdf

  2. Ian Magness permalink
    December 6, 2017 8:35 pm

    The RSPB – generally quite a sensible organisation that carries out so much of value to the UK’s natural environment – continues to make a complete arse of itself over “climate change”. It is so blindingly obvious that if you remove a vital part of the North Sea’s food chain to the tune of hundreds of thousands of tons a year, the species that eat that vital part are going to suffer.
    It is also blinding obvious that sandeels, as pelagic fish that occupy seas right into inter-tidal zones year-round, are not going to be in the least bit worried about a change of temperature of the odd degree. They experience far worse daily. Temperature is not therefore the issue.
    An alternative theory put forward by the RSPB and other green bodies is that sandeels suffer because global warming has reduced the zooplankton populations on which they depend. Just a couple of minor issues with this argument: 1) how does that have an impact remotely on the same scale as massive removals by trawlers? and 2) where is the evidence of zooplankton decline? What surveys have been done by whom, over how many years and with what careful contemporaneous water temperature data to make the data meaningful?
    The answer, of course, is that no such studies have ever been carried out to prove, to a high degree of certainty, the zooplankton-declining-with-water-temperature meme. It’s all green fantasising. The whole episode brings shame upon the RSPB and indeed the governments who continue to allow the rape of such a vital food source in our northern seas despite the damage to wildlife being done.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      December 7, 2017 1:48 pm

      Before I quit the RSPB over their global warming drivel (they hadn’t changed to climate change at that point) I remember commercial sandeel fishing was raised as an issue.

  3. December 7, 2017 12:21 am

    Sand eels are trawled for use as animal feed, fertilizer & fish-meal pellets for aquaculture
    (Scottish and Norwegian salmon farms use 5kg of fish-meal per kilogram of salmon produced).

    ~90% of fish in European waters feed on sand-eels at some point.

    Up to 2001 ~1 million tons of sand-eels were taken just from the North Sea every yr.
    Then fish stocks crashed in 2002
    By 2016 total EU allowable catch was down to 87,219 tonnes & stocks are low but stable.

    see –

    Nothing to do with climate… everything to do with short term greed.

  4. henry.algeo permalink
    December 7, 2017 12:42 am

    Is there any science relating the decline in salmon numbers to the industrial fishing of sandeels by Denmark in the North Sea? Henry Algeo


  5. Graeme No.3 permalink
    December 7, 2017 2:34 am

    Does this mean that after Brexit and the UK regains control of its waters that bird numbers will rise? After all the “seabirds breeding on the UK’s western colonies were faring better than those on the North Sea coast” so if it isn’t ClimateChange© then it may be better food supplies.

  6. December 7, 2017 6:34 am

    I, along with lots of other people, gave up my membership of the RSPB about 11 years ago when it started being an expert propagandist for “climate change” and a massive supporter of wind turbines. Even back then I can remember the controversy about the Danish fishing fleets sweeping the North Sea clean of sand eels to produce fish meal to feed to chickens (I think it was chickens because I recall mention of the effect fish meal had on the taste of eggs and meat). People were warning back then that the lack of sand eels would have a big effect on the population of certain birds that bred along the North Sea coast.

    Has the RSPB no memory or has it been corrupted by the “climate change” industry?

  7. Ian Wilson permalink
    December 7, 2017 7:11 am

    Spot on! I also cancelled my RSPB membership over their obsession with climate change, in particular a very similar scare about Kittiwakes, again due to sandeel decline. it was quite obvious the decline was due to commercial fishing and nothing to do with miniscule ocean warming.
    It’s a pity the RSPB spoil the much undeniably good work they do with this nonsense.

    • Paddy permalink
      December 7, 2017 7:47 am

      The RSPB’s obsession with raptors has caused a decline in the populations of target species

      • December 7, 2017 8:21 am

        Just like the Badger Trust’s obsession with badgers has cause the decline of hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds.

      • Gerry, England permalink
        December 7, 2017 1:51 pm

        The excellent Robin Page wrote on this subject and pointed out the quantity of food required by the beloved Red Kites that are now around. And then people wonder why they see fewer small birds around.

  8. Athelstan permalink
    December 7, 2017 9:53 am

    “We think it may be because of the increased numbers of sandeels which the puffins feed on. “

    No **** Sherlock.

    Nesting seabird populations on North sea coasts and diminishing numbers?!

    Sand eels hoovering on the bed of the North Sea by Danish vessels is the problem for birds and because of the sand eel shortage the whole marine food chain is affected, we knew this some years ago and still nothing was/is done, I wonder what could be the problem……………oh yes the EU Brussels lobbying, the CFP and ‘our’ waters aren’t ours, are they?

    Puffins go elsewhere – it ain’t rocket science, it ain’t global warming either.

  9. Roy Hartwell permalink
    December 7, 2017 6:52 pm

    Indeed ! I seem to remember some years (decades ?) ago one marine scientist saying the decline in North Sea cod stocks was due to overfishing of sand eels for pig food (Netherlands ?). Of course that didn’t fit with the ‘accepted’ reason of overfishing, allowing them to put many British fishermen out of business.

  10. tom0mason permalink
    December 8, 2017 12:30 pm

    Save the World — Let them eat worms!


    Climate Doomsday Science: Study Finds That Worm Farts Could Be The Tipping Point —

    Worm greenhouse emissions (primarily methane) from our global ocean sediment buddies could lead to that proverbial tipping point – initiating a runaway global warming and catastrophic climate change scenario.

    “The findings, which have been published in the journal Scientific Reports, point to a so far neglected source of greenhouse gases in the sea and could have a profound impact on decision makers.”

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