This post is by Gareth Cunningham, RSPB’s principle marine policy officer
The Isles of Scilly are internationally important for seabirds, and one of only two places in England where Manx shearwater and storm petrel breed. Over the past decade a huge amount of work has been done to boost the numbers of these two burrow nesting species through the eradication of rats on the islands of St Agnes and Gugh.
The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, funded through the EU Life project, has been hugely successful, both in its practical efforts and its pioneering community work to ensure buy in from islanders and engage them with the project. Ongoing biosecurity measures, alongside ongoing monitoring, should ensure that, on land, these birds have a secure future.
Protecting the seas as well as land is important to reverse seabird decline
However, although terrestrial conservation efforts are progressing, how we manage the surrounding seas is of equal importance. This is why all those involved in seabird conservation were delighted with the government’s recent announcement of a new marine Special Protection Area designation that extends the current land-based designation out to sea. Within this, we were also pleased that the designation added seabirds we know are declining (lesser black-backed gull, shag and great black backed gull) as part of the overall seabird assemblage.
This new marine designation will help steer the management of the seascape immediately around the islands. For instance, it could prompt a review of the effects of seabed trawling within its boundaries. It will also help us on the issues around the decline of seabirds, now ‘functionally linked’ to the new SPA, but that roam much more widely around our territorial waters and beyond.
In this, we are hoping for a renewed focus on the problems our seabirds face in the western approaches, and around the UK, in particular the risk of bycatch, and the overall declines in food available. Addressing these combined threats to seabird recovery is a clear priority for the government. So the RSPB, and others, are working with the government to deliver its ambition of a comprehensive seabird conservation strategy.
New powers will make it possible to control seabird bycatch
We hope that the emerging powers from the new UK Fisheries Act will be used to ensure that seabird bycatch is swiftly tackled. It is the RSPB’s view that the UK government must have a clear plan of action to address this issue which kills thousands of seabirds every year in UK waters.
Where there is high bycatch risk, changes to byelaws are needed to avoid incidental catches of seabirds, with testing and widespread use of mitigation measures ensuring that fishing practices are sustainable and non-damaging.
But mitigation measures won’t be enough on their own. Improved monitoring of fishing activity is also an essential component of marine management to identify which species are most at risk, how they are being affected and where. We believe Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) on fishing vessels is vital to reduce and, where possible, eliminate seabird bycatch.
More sustainable fishing practices will protect food for seabirds
The new Fisheries Act could also lead to more sustainable fishing that restores fish stocks to levels that will support our once vibrant seabird colonies, such as on the Isles of Scilly. Forage fish species such as sprat, herring and sandeels are important to a seabird’s diet. But for many of these species, the stocks are often classed as ‘data deficient’, meaning it is unclear how many of the species are available or commercially exploited.
The UK has committed to become a world leader in marine management. The ability to write its own Fisheries Management Plans is a great place to start. We want the government to produce robust, evidence based plans for fish species. These would set the total allowable catch and appropriate fisheries controls in UK waters, so there is a sustainable increase in both the availability and quality of prey for seabirds and other species, for the long term.
New marine protection areas ought to be the means by which the government can ‘level up’ its overall ambitions for the sustainable management of coastal waters. It was great to hear last week that the Solway Firth marine protected area is also being expanded by 92,070 hectares, bringing it to a total of 135,750 hectares. Let’s hope these new designations really can bring about a renaissance in the way we conserve our precious marine wildlife.
Photograph: RSPB images/Ben Andrew