Filey Bay has given life to generations of seabirds, but in recent years it has also claimed many victims.
Every summer, seabirds come in their thousands to breed on the cliffs at Flamborough Head, Bempton and to the north of Filey Bay on the Yorkshire coast.
Between April and August each year the sheer cliffs teem with the sights, sounds and smells of breeding seabirds in a wildlife spectacle that is enjoyed by thousands of visitors. From these nest sites which are protected by law, guillemots, gannets, razorbills, puffins and kittiwakes head out to sea in search of food for their chicks and it’s into these waters that the young birds take their first tentative flights.
Filey Bay is one of the areas visited by these seabirds to rest and feed. This bay is also home to a sea trout and salmon fishery which has been running for more than 100 years, with generations of families working within the bay. In the late 2000s, large numbers of seabirds, particularly razorbills and guillemots, getting entangled in fishing nets and sadly drowning.
Our attempts to reduce seabird deaths
Over the last six years, the RSPB has been working with the fishery managers (the Environment Agency), Natural England and the Filey Bay netsmen to find measures that minimise seabird deaths, while still allowing the fishery to operate successfully.
The Environment Agency adopted a byelaw in 2010 prescribing a series of measures aimed at reducing the number of incidental seabird deaths. These measures include using special netting which is more visible to the birds (and in some cases has been found to increase fish catch), not fishing at night, attending the net at all times it is in the water (to allow the quick release of birds alive) and training for the netsman on safely releasing caught birds.
Since the introduction of the byelaw, levels of seabird bycatch have fallen dramatically and there has been a real effort by the netsmen to positively adopt and implement the measures of the byelaw. In fact, in recent years the number of seabirds released alive has exceeded the number of fatalities.
Although the decline in seabird bycatch in Filey Bay over the last few years was due in no small part to factors relating to the byelaw and the great work by the fishermen, the low numbers of birds coming into the bay over the last three years have also played a significant part in these reductions.
With such low numbers of birds in the bay it has been difficult to ascertain what causes the birds to become trapped in the nets. As such we remain worried that if guillemots and razorbills return to the bay in previous large numbers, bycatch could become a threat once more.
A continuing effort
With that in mind the RSPB is still working closely with the netsmen in Filey Bay, trialling possible mitigation strategies and monitoring seabird and bycatch levels carefully.
The bycatch in Filey Bay is not an isolated event; hundreds of thousands of seabirds are killed every year in gillnet fisheries alone, representing a significant threat to their conservation. In spite of numerous reports of gillnet bycatch across the globe, very little research has been undertaken on mitigation measures that might reduce gillnet bycatch and this is just another reason the Filey Bay fishery case study is so important.
The success of the work at Filey Bay has demonstrated how collaboration between fishermen, government agencies and wildlife organisations can work together successfully are tantamount to reducing seabird bycatch. With information on bycatch mitigation in gillnet fisheries so sparse, our work at Filey Bay could potentially help address the issue nationally and even internationally. There is the potential for the work at Filey Bay to be significant on a regional, national and even global scale.