Action needed to stop 'brutal' seabird deaths by fishing gear

The RSPB considers bycatch one of the biggest reasons for declining seabird numbers.

Vital action needed by Scottish Government to stop brutal seabird deaths by fishing gear, says RSPB iStock

The Scottish Government needs to take “vital action” to protect vulnerable seabirds from being caught and killed by fishing gear, a watchdog has said.

The Bycatch Mitigation Initiative, jointly published this week by the UK and devolved governments, outlines the damaging impact of bycatch on marine wildlife – including seabirds – in UK waters.

However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has said that it “fails to provide the detail of commitment and action needed” to solve what it considers one of the biggest dangers to seabird lives.

Seabirds have suffered catastrophic declines across Scotland in recent decades and they continue to face an uncertain future.

A 2021 report by NatureScot highlighted that the number of breeding pairs in Scotland has fallen dramatically by 49% since the 1980s.

Concerns have been further exacerbated by the impact of the recent outbreak of avian influenza, dubbed the worst in two decades by experts.

While climate change and a decline in food sources are major reasons for this fall in numbers, RSPB has also identified bycatch as a key contributing factor.

RSPB Scotland is now calling on the Scottish Government to address the “devastating yet avoidable” issue of seabird bycatch through the introduction of effective monitoring at sea, setting ambitious, timebound targets and supporting the fishing industry to develop and implement best practice mitigation measures.

“Sadly this announcement is a lost opportunity to set out a clear suite of actions that will be taken to protect seabirds from preventable and unnecessary deaths drowning on the end of fishing hooks and in nets,” said Helen McLachlan, head of marine policy for RSPB Scotland.

“Setting out and delivering a clear plan for supporting the fishing industry in mitigating and monitoring bycatch could make an instant difference to our globally important seabird colonies.”

She added: “Continued inaction on bycatch completely undermines Scotland’s special responsibility to protect and recover its internationally significant seabird populations.”

Bycatch programme manager for BirdLife International, Rory Crawford said: “Wildlife bycatch is a solvable problem and the Scottish Government must recognise this as a priority issue and deliver the necessary, world leading actions needed to end bycatch.

“Every year thousands of threatened seabirds are caught on the hooks of vessels fishing in Scottish waters. This has to stop. The RSPB have worked internationally with industry to show that cheap and simple measures can be used to save seabirds and keep fishers fishing, but our struggling seabirds cannot afford further delays.

“We are urging the Scottish Government to use the information they have at their fingertips to tackle seabird bycatch once and for all in Scottish waters.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is taking the current outbreak situation very seriously and is working hard with partner organisations to progress measures to respond to the reports of increased mortality among wild bird populations.

“NatureScot has advised that there is no evidence of spread of avian influenza from poultry or gamebirds to wild birds within the UK.

“There is no evidence to support further disease control measures on game bird operation activities beyond those already in place, which includes a ban on releasing game birds in all disease control zones.”

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