Aerial view of ocean reef, Henderson Island

Oceans and Coastal

The UK’s shores and seas are home to an amazing array of marine biodiversity. This includes around 8 million globally important seabirds which breed here every year on our cliffs, islands and beaches.

Fisheries (bycatch and forage fish)

Around 30 terns flying just above the sea's waterline

Unsustainable fishing activity is one of the greatest threats to ocean life and our struggling seabird populations, firstly from ‘bycatch’ – the accidental killing of seabirds as they get ensnared and drown in fishing gear – and secondly from targeting sandeels, sprats and other ‘forage fish’ which are the staple diet of breeding kittiwakes, auks and many other seabirds.

Research has given vital insight into the initial scale of the bycatch problem in the UK and it’s now time for action on the water. The RSPB is calling on governments across the UK to urgently take effective action to tackle seabird bycatch. Mitigation measures that stop seabirds drowning on the end of hooks and getting tangled in nets must be rolled out and at-sea monitoring must be ramped up. From our grassroots engagement with fishers around the globe, we know how important it is to collaborate with the industry, so we are continuing to work directly with fishers to understand the problem and identify practical solutions.

The RSPB is seeking a commitment from governments to halt the commercial extraction of forage fish, at least in UK waters if not the whole North Sea alongside calling on UK governments to make good on the commitments made in the Fisheries Act 2020, and put UK fisheries on a sustainable footing by adopting a ‘climate-smart’ strategy to support future management. In tackling these two major threats, our governments can carry a global torch for an ‘ecosystem approach’ to fishing.

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Marine protected areas

The waters and shoreline of Tristan da Cunha are now part of a marine protection zone | The RSPB

Legislation has resulted in designation of protective measures for several marine areas across the UK. Our focus now is on ensuring these tools are used effectively to protect and restore the full range of marine wildlife both above and beneath the waves.

The UK should continue to deliver and prioritise its ambitions to create a coherent network of marine sites, affording protection to seabirds throughout their whole lifecycle.  In doing so the UK can become a world leader in safeguarding the full wealth of marine life, both in its Overseas Territories and domestic waters. 

However, as the UK Government’s own assessment shows, many of these sites are failing to prevent the decline of some of our increasingly rare species. To reverse this, significant commitment is needed to resource the management of these sites to protect, conserve and restore the species, habitats and ecological processes adversely affected by human activities.

Planning offshore renewables in harmony with nature

A group of birds flying over wind turbines. They are silhouetted against the sunset.

UK seas are of global importance for seabirds and will play a vital role in the decarbonisation of our energy systems through increased offshore renewables – tidal and particularly wind. However, the current approach to the expansion of these technologies threatens both nature and net zero.

Urgent change is needed if the UK is to reach rightly ambitious targets for offshore wind and prevent irreversible losses to our seabirds – already threatened by growing renewables deployment, human activity and climate change.

The RSPB is calling for joint solutions to ensure our offshore energy expansion does not deepen biodiversity loss including:

  • Research and monitoring to provide a robust evidence base on how wildlife uses our seas and interacts with offshore renewables
  • Government led marine spatial planning, directing development to areas where the risks to nature are lowest in a robust and strategic process.
  • Conservation measures to turn the tide for seabirds and revive our seas.
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Island restoration & biosecurity

The accidental or intentional introduction of mammalian predators such as rats, mustelids and cats on islands has led to many seabird colonies being decimated, with burrow-nesting species such as the Manx shearwater and European storm-petrel especially vulnerable. And without effective biosecurity measures, seabirds breeding on islands that are currently free of mammalian predators are at risk.

The removal of introduced predators can save seabird colonies and build resilience against the pressures seabird populations face at sea, and in the UK has resulted in substantial increases and even re-colonisation of islands by burrow-nesting seabirds.

But more needs to be done. The RSPB calls for governments to commit to a Biosecurity Strategy for the UK’s seabird islands, to invest in measures to prevent new introductions of mammalian predators, and to establish a programme to fund the removal of introduced predators from islands for the benefit of seabirds.

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Colony management

Many internationally important seabird colonies occur on soft coast habitats such as dunes salt marshes and shingle islands that have declined in extent and quality over the past 50 years. Current and predicted sea level rise and erosion effects will continue to significantly impact on these colonies,  and the few remaining areas of suitable habitat are also under increasing pressure from human activities and impacts of predation. This needs to be addressed by targeted management of current colonies to ensure available nesting habitat and protection from human impacts and predation. In addition, we need to create new sites to offset predicted losses through integrating seabird breeding sites into large multipurpose coastal management schemes. Alongside this habitat work, we need to establish beach bird protection projects in key areas to work with local communities to minimise disturbance effects and establish more safe nesting areas, particularly for vulnerable species like terns.

We know the location of the most important and threatened seabird colonies and the best opportunities for new habitat creation projects. The UK Government needs to step up and deliver on its coastal management policies to deliver a programme at these key sites, which supports coastal wildlife and wider ecosystem benefits.

Policy and Insight: England and Westminster

Environmental policies created in Westminster affect England, the UK, our oversea territories, and international agreements.