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At last! European seabirds given fresh hope

Last modified: 16 November 2012

Long-tailed duck surfacing from dive

A regular winter visitor to the UK, the long-tailed duck is a species which dies in unsustainable numbers in the Baltic Sea

Today, after a long fight, the European Commission has finally launched an EU Plan of Action to reduce seabird bycatch: the incidental deaths of seabirds ensnared in fishing gears.

The RSPB along with its EU partners have advocated for an action plan since 2001, when the European Commission first committed to proposing one. Since then, we estimate that over two million seabirds have died in the fishing gears of vessels in EU waters alone, not counting the additional impact of EU-flagged vessels operating in the southern oceans where bycatch is held mainly responsible for 17 out of 22 albatross species being threatened with extinction.

We applaud the EU for finally calling time on the needless deaths of seabirds

Martin Harper, Director of Conservation said:  “We applaud the EU for finally calling time on the needless deaths of seabirds.  The RSPB is ready to work together with fishing communities to put the plan into action both here and abroad.” He continued: “However, the plan is essentially voluntary and to have real teeth it needs to be underpinned with legally binding measures under the Common Fisheries Policy, in particular to require fishing boats to use the technical fixes known to avoid catching birds, and to collect data on seabird bycatch.”

Embracing simple solutions

The EU Seabird Plan of Action aims to minimise and, where possible, eliminate the bycatch of seabirds in EU and external waters.  It sets out to achieve this through a range of actions, notably calling on vessels to apply mitigation measures to prevent seabirds coming into contact with fishing gears.  Other key areas cover research and development, and awareness-raising and training for fishermen. The RSPB considers the plan to be best practice, drawing heavily on other regions of the world where non-EU fleets have already embraced the often simple solutions proven to stop seabirds being killed.  

Of the species which are heavily affected by bycatch in European waters, three occur regularly in the UK. All three are cited as threatened with global extinction with seabird bycatch being listed as a major threat. The Balearic shearwater – a dove-sized relative of the albatross – visits the English Channel and South Western Approaches regularly in autumn and winter, while the velvet scoter and long-tailed duck are sea ducks which regularly winter along the UK’s North Sea coast.

Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy at the RSPB, UK, stated: “Seabirds are among our most visible and iconic indicators of ocean health, and experience tells us that responsible fishermen would much rather catch fish than birds, if only they had the means to do so.  This  desperately overdue EU Seabird Plan of Action now gives Member States and the fishing industry a golden opportunity to do that, and we trust they will seize it.   For the most threatened species like Balearic shearwater there is no time to waste so we need emergency action to tackle their fatal attraction to fishing gear.”

100,000 birds deaths

In EU waters, most seabird bycatch arises from gillnets and longlines, but to a lesser extent also trawls and purse seine nets. At least 100,000 birds are killed every year in gillnets in the Baltic Sea and eastern North Sea.  A Spanish longline fishery for hake off south-west Ireland is estimated to kill tens of thousands of seabirds annually, mostly great shearwaters.  This slaughter flies in the face of the EU Birds Directive which is meant to protect European seabirds, including globally threatened species which are caught and drowned in EU fishing gears. 

It is therefore a vital first step that the Seabird Action Plan has finally seen the light of day. Following the European Commission’s proposal, it will be up to Member States to endorse the plan in Council, and then to translate it into effective measures in their national waters and also on the high seas, governed by the tuna Commissions, where EU-flagged vessels also roam.

How you can help

The seas around the UK's coasts are increasingly overfished, over-trafficked and over-developed, but crucially under-protected. Your support today will help safeguard our sea life.