Danish trawler fishing for sandeels with gannets & kittiwakes


Fisheries have a greater direct effect on seabirds than any other human activity.

The current state of fishing

Despite growing concerns about climate change and badly placed renewable energy developments, fishing remains the most widespread and immediate agent of change on global marine biodiversity.

Not only has the pattern of fishing in UK waters, repeated worldwide, proved unsustainable for many fish stocks and the fishing industry, but it has also had powerful knock-on effects on seabirds and the rest of our marine wildlife. 

Fishing can affect seabirds and other wildlife directly through entanglement in nets and being caught on hooked lines, with hundreds of thousands of birds killed this way every year in European waters.

The indirect effects of fisheries – pollution, litter and, most importantly, overfishing affecting the food chain -  also endanger seabird populations.


Final report to the RSPB by Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd and The University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. PDF, 818Kb.

Assessment of the sustainability of industrial fisheries producing fish meal and fish oil

Fishing and seabirds

Many seabirds, particularly those that are currently suffering the largest declines, mostly feed on small shoaling fish such as sandeels.

Scientists believe that changes in the food chain caused by warming seas is causing sandeel declines and leading to starving seabirds.

However, the RSPB works to ensure that fishing is managed in ways which do not pile extra pressure on top of this climatic impact.

We actively engage with fishermen and governments in the UK and throughout Europe to change the way fisheries are managed so as to make them more sensitive to the needs of the marine environment.

The reformed EU Common Fisheries Policy is a significant move in the right direction towards putting fisheries on a long term sustainable footing, both for fish stocks and the wider marine environment, creating incentives for boats to fish in ways which do not damage our seas.

To find out more about the RSPB's work to ensure a reformed Common Fisheries Policy.

Troup Head RSPB reserve. The Puffin (a former fishing vessel) is skippered by John Smith of Puffin Cruises, in wildlife & birdwatching trips around the headland. Scotland.

Ban on dumping unwanted fish

The biggest change in European fisheries management for a generation is the ban on dumping unwanted fish at sea.

In recent years, up to half the fish caught by fishing vessels has been routinely thrown overboard, dead, as 'discards'. This, along with other fish waste jettisoned, is thought to have led to an increase this century in numbers of scavenging birds, notably fulmars, gannets and gulls which find rich pickings behind trawlers.

The new changes in fisheries management are now shifting the balance again. The ban on discarding, and the requirement to bring all caught fish ashore (the so-called ‘Landing Obligation’), began in January 2015 and is being phased in.  This will help to put our seas and seabirds back on an even keel, a change we welcome even if though it may be to the short term disadvantage of some discard-dependent seabirds.


Implications of Fisheries Management for Seabirds Scavenging Discards in the Northern North Sea. PDF, 1.2Mb.

Net loss - seabirds gain?

The difficulties facing some of Scotland’s key offshore fisheries have been widely reported. However, the future of Scotland’s inshore fisheries is also in the balance. PDF, 572Kb.

Inshore fisheries regulation and management in Scotland: Meeting the challenges of Environmental Integration

Public pressure for sustainable fisheries

We encourage and support consumers to choose seafood from sustainable sources.

Since 1998 we have been official supporters of the Marine Stewardship Council whose mission is to use its fishery certification to contribute to improving the health of the world's oceans.

For more information on finding products with MSC’s 'blue tick' ecolabel, see the useful links listed.

As part of our own sustainable sourcing policy, we endeavour to provide only responsibly sourced fish in our own catering outlets, whether for staff or for visitors at our nature reserves.

EU Common Fisheries policy

Great skua in flight close to a fishing boat

The RSPB and other environmental NGOs worked hard to ensure that the new laws help protect Europe's marine life and the fishing communities that depend on it.

Industrial fisheries: how sustainable are they?

Sea bird colonies on cliffs at Fowlsheugh RSPB reserve. Scotland. June 2006.

Catches of marine fish have increased steadily for much of the past century, driven by rapid advances in technology and the needs of a growing human population.

Seabird bycatch

 Black browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, West Point Island, Falklands.

The accidental killing of seabirds as so-called 'bycatch' in fisheries is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of seabirds globally, every year.