Europe and Central Asia
11 May 2015

The challenge of bringing marine wildlife back in EU waters

Cory's Shearwater © Ivan Ramirez
By Bruna Campos

Member States urgently need to implement the marine Natura 2000 network and underpin it with concrete measures that will give our seabirds a fighting chance against the growing threats they face at sea.

It should be common knowledge that EU seas are in disarray: overfishing has been ongoing for decades, nutrient pollution is causing algae blooms and dead zones, oil spills are causing mass mortalities of marine life, and climate change is changing the dynamics of the food web – just to name a few problems. All in all, seabirds and other marine species are having a hard time surviving in these dire conditions. But despite the grim outlook, there is still hope that seabirds can be properly protected, and establishing the Natura 2000 network plays a crucial role in this.

Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds in Europe. As seabirds face a range of threats both on land and at sea there is no single solution to preventing the relentless decline in many of species across the EU. Designating protected areas are important, but not enough. Setting effective conservation targets of protected areas and establishing concrete actions to manage sites are also fundamental to ensure that the species, its habitat and food supply are actually being protected.

Addressing the threats to the most endangered species is imperative, such as reducing the number of critically endangered Balearic Shearwater that are being accidentally caught by fishermen or saving the threatened Monteiro’s petrel from invasive rats on their breeding grounds. But it is also just as important to address the over-arching problems that are causing the populations of once-common seabirds to steeply decline across the region. For example, the Kittiwake is disappearing throughout much of the North Sea as a result of dwindling stocks of its staple diet of sandeels and other small shoaling fish.

So how do we tackle these much larger problems? We work together! We set actions!

In relation to the North Sea, there have been extensive discussions between governments, fishing industry, and environmental NGOs about a marine area known as the Dogger Bank. The area is a unique and massive complex of Natura 2000 sites belonging to the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands, and it is also very intensively fished. The area has had centuries of invasive bottom-trawling that has degraded the sandbank community, completely altering its ecosystems at the expense of vulnerable, long-lived, and fascinating species like the ocean quahog ( a type of clam) – which is the longest-lived  animal known to man on the planet (known to survive 500 years).

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Conservation work in adjacent areas in the North Sea has helped derive management actions suitable for the Dogger Bank. In 2000, the EU decided to set up a closed area, called the “sandeel box”, in the North Sea as a direct response to the ever worsening breeding performance of the Kittiwake population on the Scottish coast.  More recently, the UK Government, in arguing for keeping this box in place long term, concluded that ‘there is evidence that the sandeel fishing closure off north-east England and east Scotland has had a positive impact on the breeding success of kittiwake colonies adjacent to the closed area.’

By conserving the habitat community several other species are also benefiting from this fisheries closure, including the harbour porpoise and the seabirds feeding in the area. Recently, we have seen a landmark decision by the Dutch Minister Sharon Dijksma, who, after much political wrangling in the Dutch Parliament, was able to give Dutch consent to a long overdue joint proposal by Member States for managing fisheries on the Dogger Bank. 

The overdue restriction of the damaging bottom-trawl fisheries communities in the Dogger Bank would also benefit sandeels and their dependent seabird populations. Given the evidence that sea warming is also altering sandeel stocks, there is no time to lose in safeguarding the vital sandbanks. 

Unfortunately, EU Member States have being doing very little to support the marine environment through protected areas and management measures in EU waters. They have done very poorly in designating their Natura 2000 sites for seabirds, far less effectively managing them. Much more urgency is needed from Member States to implement the marine Natura 2000 network and to underpin it with the concrete measures that will give our seabirds a fighting chance against the growing threats they face at sea.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.