View of sea cliffs, RSPB Ramsey Island

What are we doing to help protect sealife?

The long-term effects of our actions at sea are currently poorly considered

The damage to our seas

We are in danger of losing unique marine habitats and species before we understand, or even discover, them. Confusion reigns, and marine nature conservation is the loser.

However, there is hope on the horizon – we now have the tools for better protection.

The UK Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 give us a chance to put things right. Although we are currently awaiting similar legislation to be introduced by the Northern Ireland Assembly, these new laws mean the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments have new powers to protect nationally important marine wildlife and manage our seas more effectively.

Together, these laws should allow us to better plan, manage and co-ordinate how and when different activities take place at sea, while ensuring adequate space is reserved for the effective protection of sealife.

The new system of management at sea must be set up as soon as possible, particularly as marine development speeds up.

A network of protected sites

Despite our best efforts to secure seabirds a safe future on land, without clean and healthy seas providing a rich and diverse food supply, they will suffer.

The protection of breeding colonies alone is not enough to guarantee our seabirds a thriving future - protection on land must be supported by protection at sea.

A key feature of the new marine laws is the power for Governments to create a network of Marine Conservation Zones (in England and Wales) and Marine Protected Areas (in Scotland) to protect nationally important sealife. Once designated, these sites will exist alongside sites designated to protect internationally important marine wildlife under European laws.

The aim was to have the network completed by 2012 to meet international commitments. However, the UK's governments have missed this target. We are concerned by the slow rate of progress and the lack of ambition with respect to the proposals coming forward.

In particular, we are bitterly disappointed that none of the processes to identify Marine Conservation Zones/Marine Protected Areas in England, Wales or Scotland, will deliver protection for the important areas used by seabirds and other species, such as basking sharks, seals and dolphins, at sea.

Furthermore, the process to designate internationally important marine protected areas for seabirds has also been delayed several years beyond the 2012 deadline. Prompting fears that the needs of seabirds and other sealife are being overlooked.

We are currently working hard to ensure that areas at sea which are used by our seabirds for feeding, resting or moulting are included in the final protected site network.

Grey seals pup and adult female lie on the beach together, Blakeney Point

Investigating important sites for seabirds at sea

One of the barriers to protecting seabirds better at sea is our lack of knowledge about which areas of the sea are important for seabirds and what they use different sea areas for.

To help overcome this barrier, we are involved in a project to track breeding seabirds using GPS tags.

The Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment (FAME) project aims to find out where seabirds go when at sea and what they do when they are there searching for food.

 Ellie Owen, holding a data tracker used in the FAME project, Colonsay, Scotland

More sustainable fisheries management

Of all human activities, fishing is probably one of the most damaging to the marine environment.

For seabirds, fishing activities have two main impacts.

Firstly, the removal of prey fish species and the related changes to the marine environment as a whole. And, secondly, the accidental catching of seabirds from some fishing methods.

We are working hard to ensure that all fisheries are sustainable, and that any potential impacts on seabirds and other marine wildlife are minimised.

Illegal fishing vessels off the coast of Ascention Island, Island in Saint Helena, South Atlantic Ocean