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Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 11:40 GMT
Ministers consider sandeel fishing ban

There could soon be a ban on fishing for sandeels in 20,000 square kilometres of the North Sea.

The ban is among the European Commission's recommendations to the Council of Fisheries ministers who are meeting in Brussels this week.

Environmentalists have called for the measure because of what they say is the chronic decline in the breeding success of kittiwake colonies off the Firth of Forth, east of Scotland. The birds rely on sandeels to feed their young.

sandeel Sandeels swim in shoals and bury themselves in sandy sediments
The commission has based its proposal on advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which has accepted kittiwake performance as a measure of the health of sandeel stocks.

The council argues that regional sandeel fisheries should be closed when kittiwake breeding success drops below 0.5 chicks per year, a situation already afflicting the outer Firth of Forth colonies.

The industrial fishery for sandeels is by far the largest fishery in the North Sea. Denmark gets the bulk of the quota - about 900,000 tonnes, with the UK receiving 20,000 tonnes.

The Scottish Office banned sandeel fishing around Shetland between 1991 and 1994 after declines in stocks led to the extensive breeding failure of seabirds. However, fishing was permitted again from 1995.

Small fish

The sandeel is a small (usually five to 15cm-long) eel-like fish that divides its time between free swimming in dense shoals and lying buried in sandy sediments.

It forms a major part of the diet for many seabirds such as arctic terns, puffins, bonxies and gannets, as well as commercial fish such as cod and mackerel. It is also eaten by seals.

Puff The puffin feeds on sandeels
Sandeels are not eaten directly by humans. Instead, the fishing industry processes them into fish meal and oil to make food pellets for salmon farming and livestock feed - especially for Danish pigs. The oil is also used in soft margarines.

"The sandeel props up the whole of the North Sea food chain, including the poor old beleaguered cod," said Dr Euan Dunn, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

"It is reckless to allow a million-tonne catch with no controls whatsoever in sensitive areas like the Wee Bankie, off the Firth of Forth.

"The RSPB has been campaigning for years for better regulation of industrial fishing. If the ministers act on this recommendation, they will have plugged a vital gap in protecting the food supply of seabirds and other marine life from the threat of overfishing for sandeels."

The Wee Bankie is a rich sandeel ground some 40 kilometres (25 miles) out to sea but still well within the feeding range of local seabird breeding colonies.

The Isle of May, which would be included in the area of any ban, is home to 25,000 pairs of puffins and 4,000 pairs of kittiwakes.

Westminster Fisheries Minister Elliott Morley, who visited the area on Tuesday, said: "When we have had a chance to see the result from this closure we will be in a good position to decide whether it would be right to press for action to safeguard other areas, for example, in areas off the Yorkshire coast."

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See also:
23 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Seabirds drown on fishing lines
15 Apr 99 |  Sci/Tech
Survey to assess status of UK seabirds

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