Sand eel fishing ban wins an Ocean Award

May 17, 2024


The decision to ban fishing for sand eels in the English and Scottish waters of the North Sea – currently under legal challenge by the EU – has been given a Judges’ Special Award in the 2024 Ocean Awards, sponsored by Blue Marine Foundation and BOAT International.

The Ocean Awards judging panel decided the ban on fishing for sand eels was such a significant move in addressing the decline of seabirds, particularly puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, shags and Arctic terns as well as marine mammals such as harbour porpoises, seals and minke whales that they decided to create a special award to recognise it.

The winners of the award, for their actions in bringing in the ban and for building the case for it over many years were: the UK and Scottish Governments, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, together with three research bodies, the Government’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and ABP Marine Environmental Research and Economics for the Environment Consultancy.

The ban applied to vessels of any nationality and became effective on March 26, just before the start of the 2024 sand eel fishing season.

The judges noted that not only was the sand eel population of the North Sea potentially in crisis but seabirds, already devastated by avian flu, were beginning to starve.
Some 446,765 tonnes of sand eels – about 11 billion individuals – were caught in British waters in 2021.

Sand eels – also known as sand lances – are long, thin fatty-fleshed fish used to make oil and meal which are used in the salmon farming industry and animal feed.

The judges’ award was decided on March 1, long before the EU took issue with the ban and said it would make the first use of the post-Brexit dispute-settlement process to contest it on April 16. The European Commissioner, Virginius Sinkevicius, said at that time the ban “significantly restricts access for EU vessels to this fishery.”

The UK government, which is contesting the dispute, said the decision to ban industrial fishing for sand eels was taken for sound environmental reasons as it is allowed to do under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and that it had not allocated any quota to UK vessels to fish for sand eels for three years.

Sacha Bonsor, editor-at-large of BOAT International and co-chair of the judges, said: “We had initially shortlisted the sand eel fishing ban in the innovation category, but our judges decided that this action was so remarkable, topical and distinctive it deserved its own category so we created a separate award for it, the Judges’ Special Award.”

Charles Clover, Co-Founder of Blue Marine Foundation and co-chair of the judges, said: “As someone who raised concerns about the ecological impact of fishing for creatures critical to the marine food chain over 30 years ago, I am absolutely delighted that my fellow judges chose to mark this very important decision by giving this award – and at such a crucial time.

“As our citation shows, years of good science and strong ecological reasons were behind this decision to ban sand eel fishing to save seabirds and it needs to be defended staunchly. As a charity, we are strongly critical of the UK government at times, but when it (and its agencies and research bodies) think hard and make a good decision like this, we back them to the hilt.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, chef, campaigner and judge said: “The ban on sandeel fishing is a vital action to address a fundamental ecological problem affecting the health of the whole North Sea. It is extraordinarily important that it should prevail.”

The distinguished judges also included: Prof. Martin Attrill, professor of marine ecology, University of Plymouth; Aino Grapin, CEO Winch Design; Frederikke Magnussen, co-founder, A Plastic Planet; Prof. Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation, University of Exeter and Prof Yvonne Sadovy, professor of marine biology, University of Hong Kong.

The Ocean Awards were also given in the following categories:

Lifetime Achievement. Winner: Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala, a resident of the island of Lāna’i, Hawaii, in recognition of an outstanding career in marine conservation. “Uncle Sol,” as he is widely known, began his career in marine advocacy in 1978 when he successfully campaigned for his home island to become a Marine Life Conservation District, an initiative that banned commercial fishing. He was one of the advocates of the extension of Papahānaumokuākea, to become the biggest marine reserve in the world. A podcast interview with “Uncle Sol,” as he is widely known, may be listened to here.

Science. Winner: Christopher M Free at UC Santa Barbara, California, for an initiative to prevent humpback whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear. The podcast can be listened to here.

Local Hero. Winner: Kura Paul-Burke, professor of marine research at the university of Waikato, New Zealand, for restoring the shellfish population in Ohiwa harbour using traditional Maori knowledge to identify where the mussels had historically thrived.

Public Awareness. Winner: Oceanósfera, a not-for-profit outreach organisation, for encouraging a new generation of marine enthusiasts and protectors in Chile.

Innovation. Winner: Diego Cardeñosa of Florida International University’s global forensic and justice centre, for his work in using DNA analysis to combat the trade in protected shark fins. Listen to the podcast here. 

Young Initiative: Ghofrane Labyedh, manager of the sharks and rays programme at the African Marine Mammal Conservation Organisation and the Manta Trust, Cameroon, for training fishers to identify and protect shark and ray nurseries.


More news