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Sandeel fishing banned on UK side of North Sea

January 31, 2024

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Sometimes the smallest things are the most important, and that is definitely the case for the humble sandeel. A small, nondescript, innocuous little fish that spends most of its life hiding in the sand at the bottom of the sea. This unobtrusive little fish, is the most important species in the North Sea. 

Sandeels (ironically not an eel) form the base of the North Sea food web and spend most of their lives buried in the sand – an adaptation that allows them to hide from their numerous predators. It is this importance as a prey species that makes them especially important for the wider ecosystem. They are a vital source of food for huge numbers of other species, most notably threatened seabird populations including the charismatic Atlantic puffin and kittiwakes. In 2021, the RSPB released a report  which shows that the steep decline in breeding seabirds in the North Sea inked to falling numbers of sandeels. The importance of sandeels to the wider ecosystem means they known to ecologists as a ‘keystone species’ – a species whose existence benefits the wider environment.  

However, while seabirds are the poster child for the importance of sandeels, they are important as a food source for more than just birds. From commercially important fish species to dolphins and porpoises and even great whales, the humble sandeel accounts for a significant portion of the diet of many animals. Importantly, and perhaps oft overlooked, is that sandeels have an intrinsic right to exist that is separate from their importance as a food species. Many species will benefit from this fantastic decision, including the sandeels themselves.  

It is important to understand the context to this decision.  Sandeels are, despite their importance to the ecosystem hoovered up in almost unimaginable numbers. In 2021 for example, 446,765 tonnes were caught in the North Sea. This equates to over 11 billion individual fish, in one year. And this happens every year. What is perhaps worse is that this harvesting of marine life is not to be used by people. These fish do not end up in supermarkets, fishmongers or restaurants. They are used to make pet food, fishmeal for salmon farms, fertiliser and even margarine. Extraordinarily their oil has, in the past, been poured into Danish power stations as it makes poor quality coal burn well!  

Today’s announcements from both the UK and Scottish governments will have a hugely positive impact on wildlife both above and below the surface in the North Sea. It is rare in the labyrinthine world of governmental environment policy making for a pure good news story to hit the headlines. This is one of those occasions and tremendous credit must go to the politicians, government officials, scientists at Natural England, NGOs and members of the general public whose hard work and passion for marine conservation has paid off. 

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