A trawler ship out on the ocean, surrounded by birds


The competition with large scale commercial fisheries for forage fish could drive seabirds to the edge of extinction.

An unsustainable situation

A fishing ship, surrounded by flying and swimming seabirds

Fishing in UK waters is not only causing fish stocks to collapse, but it also has powerful knock-on effects on our marine wildlife. Thousands of seabirds are being killed every year in European waters as they get tangled in nets and caught on hooked lines. Indirect effects of fisheries can be just as deadly; pollution, litter and overfishing which is leaving birds with little food to eat.

What about the birds?

Close up of a white kittiwake tucking its head under its wing

Sandeels are the staple diet of many seabirds, including endangered species such as puffins and kittiwakes. Scientists believe seabirds are starving because of changes in the food chain caused by warming seas, leading sandeel populations to decline. We engage with fishermen and UK governments to change the way fisheries are managed to ensure they do not pile extra pressure on forage fish populations and make them more sensitive to the needs of wildlife.

The rise of commercial fisheries

Albatrosses flying around a small fishing vessel

Fisheries worldwide are failing, with many stocks over-exploited and at risk of collapse. Supplies will not be able to keep up with human demand for wild fish. In a bid to bridge this gap, farmed fish or “aquaculture” has become the fastest growing sector in the world food economy. As stocks of wild-caught fish dwindle further, aquaculture is predicted to increase dramatically in the next few decades.

Down the food chain

A little tern in flight with a fish in its beak, in front of a blue sky

The global expansion of aquaculture is creating unprecedented demand for fish meal and oil (from small forage fish such as sandeels) to feed farmed fish. Fish meal and oil come predominantly from wild stocks of fish harvested by commercial fisheries. A quarter of the total global catch is for fish feed. Three of the world's five largest fisheries are for fish feed.

What's the damage?

Concern is growing over whether we risk irreversible changes in the fabric of marine ecosystems. Feed fisheries are noted for their sheer scale, leaving experts worried about the overfishing of species near the bottom of the food chain and what this means for seabirds and other predators whose foraging areas for these small fish overlap with commercial fisheries.

What is the solution?

Puffin sitting on rock, beak full of fish, Isle of May National Nature reserve

We recommend all feed fisheries are subject to a review of their environmental impacts, lower catch limits are set to reflect the critical role of forage fish in the ecosystem, bycatch limits for non-target fish are created, and ecosystem indicators such as seabird population’s productivity are established.

Significant work is needed to understand the environmental effect of commercial fisheries, including the effects of climate change on feed fisheries and improved stock monitoring.