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The impact of commercial fisheries on seabird populations in the North Sea

July 14, 2020

By Paul Homewood



Climate change has long been blamed for decline in seabird populations, despite abundant evidence that commercial fishing is devastating their feeding grounds.

I cam across this 2014 study by the British Trust for Ornithology, which points the finger at the latter:



New research led by the BTO shows that the UK’s internationally important seabird populations are being affected by fishing activities in the North Sea. Levels of seabird breeding failure were higher in years when a greater proportion of the North Sea’s sandeels, important prey for seabirds, was commercially fished.

The UK’s seabirds are under pressure from human activities, such as resource extraction and fishing, as well as climate change. Under the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the UK is legally bound to make sure human activities are kept at levels consistent with “clean, healthy and productive” seas, and as top predators, monitoring seabirds can give insights into the state of the wider marine environment. In many species, counts of breeding individuals reflect population-level impacts of environmental pressures, but this is not necessarily the case with seabirds. This is because seabirds are long-lived and can delay breeding for several years after they reach maturity, or skip breeding seasons when conditions are poor.

Scientists at the BTO and JNCC have now shown monitoring seabird breeding performance to be the way forward. The study, using long-term datasets from the JNCC’s Seabird Monitoring Programme for nine seabird species, showed the knock-on effects of fishing activities in the North Sea on seabird breeding at colonies on the east coast of England and Scotland. Sandeels are typically fished for use in animal feed and fertilizer. There is a large fishery on Dogger Bank, which is within the foraging range of many seabirds. In years when a greater proportion of the North Sea’s sandeels was fished, rates of seabird breeding failure rose.

The study also found that seabirds breeding on the UK’s western colonies are faring better than those on the North Sea coast.  Population declines and elevated breeding failures were found for eight out of nine species at North Sea colonies (with Kittiwakes particularly badly affected), compared to three out of nine on the west coast. The results demonstrate that seabird breeding can show how these key species are responding to environmental pressures before such changes become evident at the population level. Detecting such impacts as early as possible is a priority, as the management of the marine environment is changing, with expansion of offshore developments, the introduction of marine protected areas, and modification of fishing discards policy.


I have long pointed out that, while puffins on the North Sea coast have been struggling in recent years, they have been flourishing on Skomer Island off the Pembroke coast. Clearly the difference between the two populations cannot be climate change, but the simple fact that their favourite food, the sandeel, is commercially fished in the North Sea.

The BTO study confirms that this fishing is also having a heavy impact on many other seabirds, notably the Kittiwake.

  1. July 14, 2020 12:48 pm

    Good to see they are not tainted unlike the RSPB which needs to have its charitable status investigated for for no longer being fit for purpose and now being just wan more left wing political organisation.

    We also need a study of the impact of the mass of bird chopping windmills surrounding the UK shore line. WHERE is the study to show the level of impact or to show there is no impact? WHERE IS IT?

    You may be interested to learn that I have written three times from different emails with a different approach to the RSPB during the last 2 years to enquire about data for environmental impact studies of windfarms in areas of pristine nature where there is no impact by man saying I am sure such a study must have taken place for each site INCLUDING near and offshore locations. I mention the building of roads and placing of concrete plinths as well as “anecdotal” information regarding bird and bat mortality. I did not receive either an acknowledgement or a reply to any of my three requests.
    Why would that be I wonder? Either they have a totally incompetent email system ( I am sure it becomes very competent if I write offering to mention them in my will). It can only be one of the following. 1. the work has not been done and if that is the case points to a clear dereliction of duty by them. 2 It can of course mean the work has been done and is so fraudulent that they want to keep it from public view. 3. It can also mean that the work shows the windmills to be murderous and therefore they are paid to keep schtum!

    It is strange do you not think with the almost instant strangulation of any other kind of man made installation in pristine nature that environmental impact reporting appears suddenly not important when it comes to wind farms or even more corrupt solar joke energy plants located in the UK when the US figured out 37degN is the approximate commercial limit.

    • July 14, 2020 4:03 pm

      @Pardon, the RSPB stupidly supported wind farms for years. Only when the gannets of Bass Rock were threatened did they throw their toys out of the pram.

      They were ignored at that stage. I think the reasoning was, “You supported all those other wind farms. They can’t be bad for birds. After all, THE ENTIRE REASON YOU EXIST is to protect birds, right?”

      The North Sea is going to be carpeted with these monstrosities, and there ain’t a damn thing we can do about it.

    • Matt Dalby permalink
      July 18, 2020 10:38 pm

      One possible advantage of offshore wind turbines could be that fishing between the turbines is not practical, so building a huge wind farm on Dogger Bank may actually help seabirds. I’m not saying that this in any way justifies such developments are there much cheaper ways of protecting fish stocks. As a first step lets hope Boris holds his nerve and refuses to sign any post Brexit trade deal that allows E.U. vessels to fish in our waters in return for free trade.

  2. Phil permalink
    July 14, 2020 12:56 pm

    “Population declines and elevated breeding failures were found for eight out of nine species at North Sea colonies (with Kittiwakes particularly badly affected), compared to three out of nine on the west coast.”

    If the populations of three out of nine species on the west coast are declining, does that mean that six out of nine are increasing? And therefore that, when the effects of industrial-scale trawling are removed from the equation, climate change (whatever that means) is actually beneficial? Did the authors of the study consider this possibility?

    I think we should be told.

  3. Broadlands permalink
    July 14, 2020 1:07 pm

    “The UK’s seabirds are under pressure from human activities, such as resource extraction and fishing, as well as climate change.”

    Nothing more than the obligatory reference to climate change added on at the end for scary impact?

  4. Alan Haile permalink
    July 14, 2020 2:01 pm

    I had a long email correspondence with someone at RSPB who insisted that the reason the sandeel population was declining was due to climate change making the water too warm for them. I asked about commercial fishing but he insisted that the major reason was definitely climate change. I wouldn’t give the RSPB the pickings from my nose and have told their collectors so on several occasions.

    • July 14, 2020 4:00 pm

      The landings of sand eels from the central North Sea peaked out at 1 million tonnes per year in about 1998. But don’t worry! This won’t affect the puffins and other birds that rely on them.

      What were these sand eels for? Fertiliser and maybe pet food. Most of them were taken by Danish boats, who are presumably worried now re: Brexit and their access to our sand eels.

      Crazy days.

      • July 14, 2020 7:35 pm

        I had 3 questions pop into my mind reading the article:
        1. What are sand eels
        2. Who is fishing them

        From your answers to all 3, I agree. “Crazy days,” indeed.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      July 14, 2020 4:01 pm

      The real crime is that the truth has been known for so long, blaming climate change is not just a lazy excuse, it’s a deliberate lie. RSPB used to know the reason. Of course the EU allowed our waters to be plundered regardless.

      Hansard 1994:

      To Brexit 2019:

      “It’s brass neck effrontery from the Danes when their fleet of industrial Sandeel vessels strip on average around 200,000 tons of Sandeels from the North Sea annually – a crucial marine food source……….Britain should use the freedom of Brexit to ban this industrial rape of sandeels that form the natural base of the food chain.”

      • Ben Vorlich permalink
        July 15, 2020 9:14 am

        The EU put restrictions on the harvesting of various white fish species in the North Sea. They made a hash of the implementation but fishermen weren’t happy with any restrictions good or bad. It seemed to me that like all polititicians and bereaucrats they thought once implemented the scheme was good and needed no tweaking which it obviously did. Sand eels needed some protection from over fishing too.

        In neither case did the UK government appear to anything, this is the fault of various UK governments laid at the feet of the EU.
        I’m not hopeful they’ll get any better after 1/1/21. But perhaps I’m a pessimist, I hope so but CV19 hasn’t filled me with confidence

      • MrGrimNasty permalink
        July 15, 2020 1:51 pm

        The very fact that Denmark is able to protest its ‘loss’ and try to influence Brexit negotiations to keep its plunder rights shows that the UK never had power to do diddly squat other than what the EU dictated from the moment our fishing rights were given away. The EU never took UK rights, feelings, or interests into consideration, UK governments may as well have piddled in the wind. We were there to fund the EU project with cash and resources, viewed with contempt. It’s why we left.

  5. John Cullen permalink
    July 14, 2020 6:37 pm

    1. New research, Paul? If I read correctly this report was published in January 2014 (i.e. over 6 years ago).

    2. I too wrote to the RSPB (president and chief executive) about a year ago to comment on the bird mincing wind turbines. However, I have not yet received a reply … fortunately for me I’m not holding my breath.


  6. July 14, 2020 7:06 pm

    Bird breeding problems on North Sea coasts become headlines every few years. Usually the BBC produces programmes about it and blames warming waters. The same species of birds thriving on skomer Island disproves such nonsense as Paul points out.

    The problem has usually been over fishing of sandeels, particularly by Denmark using factory ships processing massive quantities. The EU introduced a fishing ban in the worst affected part a few years ago but I’ve not kept up to date with the story. I guess some of these waters will belong to us after the end of this year unless Boris gives in to EU demands.

  7. David permalink
    July 14, 2020 8:17 pm

    The RSPB only exist to give high salaries to their workers who apparently do very little. On a recent visit to their headquarters in Sandy I was amazed to be told that 600 people work in their lovely mansion!

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      July 15, 2020 8:48 am

      I got pestered to make a donation along with paying for my stuff at Wickes last time I was in, I declined, as I always do these days unless it is a real charity i.e. entirely non-commission based collectors, non-salaried staff, and non-profit. But I investigated out of curiosity in case I had been needlessly mean. Since the Wickes tie up with this ‘charity’ the size of salaries and the number on high salaries has gone up greatly. I resent paying money to fat-cat salaries far greater than my own under the emotional blackmail of helping others. It’s sad, but nearly all ‘charities’ end up as self-enriching subsidized businesses.

      • dennisambler permalink
        July 15, 2020 3:09 pm

        Indeed. Mrs Stephen Kinnock (Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Danish PM from 2011 to 2015) was CEO of Save The Children International from 2016 until 2019 on a salary of £264,000 per year. Since 2019 she has been a Director of the major Danish wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas. She is now a co-chair of Facebook’s “oversight” board, which aims to “fact check” climate sceptics.

        Such an environmentally aware country, Denmark.

  8. Tim Spence permalink
    July 15, 2020 11:39 am

    I see that Tenerife is without electricity again, second time in a year, thanks to their reliance on wind power.

    • Neil Wilkinson permalink
      July 15, 2020 2:09 pm

      Explosion at a substation (apparently) . I’d be curious to know the cause of the explosion

      • Mark permalink
        July 17, 2020 3:13 pm

        I think the substation was identified for the first outage. Not clear on the recent one – I’ve trawled through a number of local reports which reported initial blame was placed on the main power station, but the reality is they are awaiting a report.

  9. igsy permalink
    July 15, 2020 11:59 am

    Thanks, Paul, for shining a light on yet another dark corner in the cultural marxists lair.
    I’m sure you’re on to it, but cross-examination at the the Grenfell Inquiry has exposed the long-suspected main problem to be that the choice of flammable material for insulation was driven by “sustainability”, or “thermal performance” targets.

    Unfortunately for my blood pressure, the BBC – mendaciously and predictably – has chosen to focus on another side of the story:

  10. Nordisch geo-climber permalink
    July 15, 2020 1:00 pm

    While climbing on the Aberdeenshire sea cliffs in recent years, it is sometimes possible to find the sea black with fish, never seen so many in my life – these are the small inlets between the cliffs. Numerous mackerel hoovering up the smaller ones, then dolphin surging through to hoover up too.
    Of course the inshore areas are relatively free from fishing.

  11. tom0mason permalink
    July 15, 2020 3:41 pm

    Is it just me or is there an ongoing war against the natural avian populations?
    What with over-fishing of sea birds’ main feeding grounds, coupled with covering the land and seas with vast numbers of windmills, all these measures appear to be designed to kill as many birds and bats as practical.

    Forward to a bird and bat free future!

  12. July 15, 2020 3:48 pm

    Whenever we refer to the millions of birds killed by windfarms the greens refer to those killed by cats and on the roads. The inevitable response is to ask when they last saw a sea eagle being dragged through a cat flap. I finally gave up on the RSPB when they put a wind turbine at their headquarters – very helpful.

  13. MrGrimNasty permalink
    July 15, 2020 9:20 pm

    Evidence of BBC bias part 1.

    Explosive stories both, obviously extremely newsworthy, yet ignored.

  14. MrGrimNasty permalink
    July 15, 2020 9:22 pm

    Evidence of BBC bias part 2.

    (One old hit, not Polar Bears, and before controversy, BBC then happy to quote her.)

    No surprise!

  15. Mack permalink
    July 15, 2020 9:48 pm

    The law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.

    When inshore sand eel populations declined in the 1990s in the North Sea due to over fishing, predation by cormorants at inland fresh water fisheries increased exponentially. The specimen fish stocks in the River Wensum in East Anglia, amongst many others, were one of the first to be devastated by them. You can’t blame the cormorants, of course, for trying to find alternate food sources.

    What was interesting at the time was that the common cormorant was not rare or endangered in British waters. However, one particular type of cormorant, once very common in Spain, was endangered and the EU gave it protected status. When our beloved civil servants at the forerunner of DEFRA saw the magic words ‘cormorant’ and ‘endangered’ they imposed a blanket ban on inland fishery managers controlling ‘all’ cormorant predation on their fish stocks without a licence, not just on the vulnerable Spanish sub species. The licence rarely gave fishery managers permission to ‘control’ i.e. shoot, more than 9 a year and, in order to be able to kill any at all, they had to conduct lengthy surveillance of cormorant activities at their fisheries as the birds merrily chomped through their stocks prior to being able to employ any lethal means of control. When confronted by huge flights of cormorants that eat twice their body weight in fish every day and injure many more, many fisheries were simply emptied of stocks in weeks.

    The end result being that inland freshwater fisheries were, and continue to be, wiped out by common cormorant predation, local economies have suffered in tandem, and HMG have demonstrated, yet again, their complete incompetence on managing a simple fish resource and protection issue.

  16. Mack permalink
    July 15, 2020 10:26 pm

    O/T Paul. Just saw the headline on tonight’s 10pm BBC News. That’s it, we’re all doomed.

    The Met Office have decided that the ‘unprecendented’ heat wave in Siberia this year is complete vindication of their ‘man made climate catastrophe’ forecasts. We are all going to fry.

    On that note, I shall go to bed with a good book, a cocoa and look forward to another fair to middling, with not many barbecues in sight, soggy summer this year in God’s own country. No bloody change there then. Last summer it started raining here in the first week in June and didn’t stop until the beginning of November. My barbecue died of rust.

    Interestingly, the Met Office forecast for my part of the world this time last week forecast one day of drizzle and then sunny intervals for the remainder. We had the one day of drizzle, one day of sunny intervals and it’s been raining pretty non stop for the past four days. I can see why they need a new super computer now! They can’t even get a week right never mind 50 years with the current pile of junk.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      July 15, 2020 10:58 pm

      The forecast has been awful lately, there was a moderate 5-day heatwave suddenly appeared in the 2 week outlook, then vanished. The usual Daily Express crazy weather headlines are still reflecting it, moderate mid 20s described as baking! It was mainly affecting the London conurbation. Interestingly their MO sourced graph of highest temps. by month missed last July’s dubious Cambridge figure.

      The Mean yearly CET to date is still reining in from crazy record levels, only a potential record by about 0.2C currently. So I’m still predicting we will be spared.

      Going back to Siberia, I loved the way in many reports the hot area was definitely climate change, but the bit below normal (yes there was some) was described as local variation!

    • Mad Mike permalink
      July 16, 2020 6:37 pm

      Hope you slept well because they’re at it again. They’re highlighting some doctor in Singapore who in plastic protective gear in an unairconditioned hospital who is sweating his whatits off and is being affected by the heat. No sh*t!. Millions won’t be able to work because it will be too hot.

  17. July 16, 2020 1:44 pm

    Of course if it was not for Global Warming/ Climate Change the fish stocks would not be used as renewable, sustainable fuel.

  18. Adam Gallon permalink
    July 16, 2020 9:53 pm

    I wonderful Parliament discussed fishing in 2007 & the humble sand eel, got a mention in Anne Wintertons speech. “The food source has been destroyed by the EU’s previous high quota for those species lower down the food chain, such as sand eels, so is it any wonder that the adult stock is unsustainable?”

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