With respect to seabird declines, Andrew Gray is right to raise the issue of the sand eel fishery (Letters, 12 November). Through the 1990s, the RSPB was particularly exercised about the potential impact of the Danish fishery on the Wee Bankie (East Scotland) due to the proximity of important seabird colonies.
With this in mind, in 2000, an area of 20,000 sq km was closed to sand eel fishing from north-east Scotland down to Northumberland. This closure remains, and the proven efficacy of the measure provides strong grounds for retaining it.
More broadly, the sand eel fishery in the North Sea is now managed on a far more sustainable footing than it once was. Yet in spite of this, many Scottish seabird populations continue to decline – and there is compelling evidence for a climate-driven explanation for this.
Zooplankton biomass in the North Sea has declined by 70 per cent since the 1960s. Along with other changes in the plankton, these declines have significantly impacted sand eel populations.
This doesn’t give a green light to aggressively pursue the sand eel fishery with wild abandon – excellent work by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology demonstrates that sand eel declines around the Firth of Forth could be aggravated if there was a nearby fishery – so careful, sustainable management remains critical. However, it does appear that climate change is the main driver of these declines and the consequent drop in seabird numbers.
The Scottish Government needs to do all that it can now: this includes not only strong action on reducing emissions, but also building resilience into seabird populations through the designation of marine protected areas.
Unfortunately, there is still not a single marine protected area in Scottish waters for seabirds feeding at sea. This must change if we are to be seen as a nation that protects the wildlife it is best known for.