SNP ministers will set out proposals that would ban commercial fishing for sandeels in Scottish waters.

Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon warned the species is a “critical component of the food chain” and is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Sandeels are an important food source for many species, including marine mammals, seabirds and predatory fish.

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The proposed measure is intended to support the wider marine ecosystem and could provide greater resilience to Scotland’s iconic seabirds, some of which have faced declines in recent decades.

Species that are highly dependent on sandeels have suffered frequent and widespread breeding failures with kittiwakes and puffins now threatened with global extinction.

The removal of sandeels, small oily fish, from Scottish waters – almost exclusively by EU trawlers – has caused problems for decades.

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Industrial trawlers, mostly from Denmark, remove thousands of tonnes of sandeels from the North Sea in Scottish waters to turn into fishmeal and fish oil for use in commercial livestock and fish feed.

Ms Gougeon said: “Sandeels are an important part of our marine ecosystem and a critical component of the food chain in the North Atlantic.

“The species is particularly vulnerable to climate change and the impact of warming seas, but fishing puts them under additional pressure. Currently commercial fishing for sandeels takes place entirely by European vessels, where they are then sold for animal feed.”

She added: “In recognition of the importance of the species to marine biodiversity, there hasn’t been any fishing quota allocated to UK vessels since 2021.

“We are now taking our protection of the species one step further and moving forward with a public consultation in the summer on proposals to prohibit all commercial fishing opportunities for sandeels in Scottish waters.

“The Scottish Government remains committed to a vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and diverse seas which are managed to meet the long term needs of nature and people.

“I hope all those with an interest take the time to give us their opinion when the consultation launches.”

RSPB Scotland has been calling for action to tackle this for decades with the charity insisting that ending industrial sandeel fishing would have minimal impact on Scottish fishing vessels.

Aedán Smith, head of policy and advocacy at RSPB Scotland, said: “Closing Scottish waters to industrial sandeel fishing is the single greatest action that can be taken to support our most vulnerable seabirds right now.

“It will not only build their resilience in the face of avian flu but also help them weather the multitude of other human made pressures they face.

“We commend the leadership shown by the Scottish Government on this issue, and urge people across Scotland to add their voice to support for this vital proposed change to ensure industrial sandeel fishing is brought to an end once and for all, and before next year’s fishing season starts in April 2024.

“Scotland’s seabirds are in decline and face multiple threats we need to do all we can to secure a better future for them.”

Scottish Greens spokesperson for coastal communities, Ariane Burgess, said: “Sandeels are a vital food source for our seas, especially for puffins and our other iconic seabird populations.

“Our oceans are under threat like never before, and so is the wildlife that depends on them. Our seabirds need our help.

“Scotland’s fishers have already stopped industrial sandeel fishing, it’s fair and right that the ban is extended if we are to protect our vital marine life.”