Plans to ban industrial sandeel fishing in Scottish waters have been hailed as a "lifeline" for threatened seabirds like puffins

The Scottish Government on Wednesday (January 31) announced it intends to prohibit all vessels from fishing for sandeels, which are a "critical part" of the marine ecosytem. 

It comes as 70% of Scottish seabirds are reported to be in decline due to threats from climate change, unsustainable fishing, the rapid expansion of offshore renewables, and bird flu. 

Read more: Mystery of the dead Scottish seabirds. Is it bird flu?

RSPB Scotland described it as the "greatest action" that can be taken to offer seabirds a lifeline at a "critical time". 

The charity said in a statement: "We are delighted the Scottish Government has announced its intention to close Scottish waters to industrial sandeel fishing!

The Herald: Puffin populations are in serious decline over the reduction in sandeelsPuffin populations are in serious decline over the reduction in sandeels (Image: PA)

"We have championed this cause for over 25 years, and last year over 11,000 supporters voiced their support for this closure!

"The announcement, along with a similar closure announced for English waters of the North Sea, is the greatest action that can be taken right now to help our beleaguered seabirds and offers a lifeline at a critical time."

Commercial fishing for sandeels  – which provide a vital food source for many species – is currently only carried out by European vessels,  as no fishing quota has been allocated for UK vessels since 2021. 

Read more: Starvation behind mass die-off of Scotland's puffins

And it is understood 94% of sandeel fishing in Scottish waters is carried out by Danish fishers for animal feed. 

Mairi Gougeon, Cabinet Secretary for rural affairs, land reform and islands, said: “Sandeel are a vital part of our marine ecosystem and a critical component of the food chain in the North Atlantic.

The Herald: Puffins are threatened with extinction due to climate change and overfishingPuffins are threatened with extinction due to climate change and overfishing (Image: PA)

“It is critical that we manage our marine environment in a such a way as to ensure its sustainable use, protecting biodiversity and ensuring healthy functioning ecosystems.

“Prohibiting all vessels from fishing for sandeel in Scottish waters will help provide long term sustainability and benefits not just for sandeel but also for seabirds, marine mammals and other fish species.

“This decision reflects overwhelming support for our proposals, the scientific evidence base and our longstanding position not to support fishing for sandeel as set out in Scotland’s Future Fisheries Management Strategy.”

Read more: The Isle of May home to 90,000 puffins - but for how much longer?

The Scottish Government said it consulted on proposals to close fishing for sandeel in Scottish waters in 2023, with 97% of respondents indicating support for it.

It comes as the UK Government also indicated its intention to close Area 4 of the North Sea in English waters for sandeel fishing.

The Herald: Guillemots are another seabird species which are at serious risk Guillemots are another seabird species which are at serious risk (Image: PA)

The ban in Scottish waters has been announced ahead of the 2024 fishery season, and is subject to Parliamentary approval.

The move has been praised as a "proud day for puffins" and a "huge boost" for Scotland's seabirds by the Scottish Greens. 

Ariane Burgess MSP, spokesperson for coastal communities, said: “This is a huge boost for our seas and a proud day for Scotland’s puffins, kittiwakes and other iconic seabirds.  

Read more: Avian flu 'wake up call' as fears rise for Scotland's seabirds
“Sandeels are a vital life source for the seabirds who depend on them, and this will ensure a far greater and more sustainable supply in the future while better protecting our marine environment. 
“Scotland’s fishers already stopped this destructive practice, with the vast majority being done by Danish vessels. It is right and fair that the ban has been extended so that we can better protect our vital marine life.” 

The Herald: Kittiwakes are another seabird species which is facing extinctionKittiwakes are another seabird species which is facing extinction (Image: PA)

Puffins, which nest on the Isle of May and the Orkney and Shetland isles, are facing rapid decline and are threatened with extinction due to the drastic reduction in food sources. 

In the UK, they birds rely heavily on sandeels which have seen their population crash due to warming sea temperatures and commercial fishing. 

Meanwhile, Kittiwakes are red listed on the conservation concern register, with their numbers having declined by 40% globally since the 1970s. 

The gulls, which can be found along North Sea coasts of Scotland, have been devastated by avian flu and overfishing of their staple diet, the sandeels. 

Read more: Scotland's 'penguin' helping scientists understand seabirds

Numbers of breeding seabirds in Scotland have declined by almost 50% since the 1980s, NatureScot reported in its latest biodiversity indicator

Climate change was one of the major factors contributing towards this, with extreme weather destroying habitats and warming waters affecting food sources. 

This is compounded by overfishing as well as birds being killed as accidental bycatch – with 25 fulmars a day being killed this way, according to DEFRA. 

Other threats include invasive non-native species like rats eating birds and their young, and offshore renewables such as wind farms killing or injuring birds.