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Seabirds falling through the net

Last modified: 05 August 2011

Gannet coming in to land at nesting colony, Bempton Cliffs

Gannets at their nesting sites are protected but many of the areas these birds rely on for feeding are not

Despite the UK being globally-renowned for its immense populations of seabirds – including puffins, shearwaters, petrels, kittiwakes, terns and gannets - laws to designate marine protected areas in England and Wales are failing these iconic species because too few seabird sites are being protected, says the RSPB – Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity.

Kate Sugar is an RSPB marine policy officer. Commenting on the relative failure of seabird protection, she said: “The UK Government has an international commitment to designate a comprehensive network of marine protected areas by the end of next year. But for seabirds, at least, we’re on course to fail because the number of sites being considered is woefully inadequate and in some cases seabirds are being excluded from the designation process.

Rich in wildlife

The seas around the UK are rich in wildlife, but they also important for economic interests too. Fisheries, renewable-energy projects, oil and gas exploration, tourism, shipping and aggregate extraction are just some of the industries that are competing with each other and the environment for growth. We believe that wildlife must be safeguarded alongside the marine ‘gold rush’ that’s currently underway. Protecting the most important sites would take them out of jeopardy and would provide much-needed clarity for marine developers and industry.

“Thankfully, most seabird nesting sites are already protected, but the areas where seabirds feed at sea are not, meaning that these species are only generally afforded protection on land. This is a nonsense: it’s like having robust laws preventing burglary, while having no laws preventing mugging. Seabirds need protection at sea too.”

It is likely that the seabird interests of some important seabird sites will miss out on protection. These sites include: the Mid-Irish Sea; the Celtic Deeps (100km off the north Cornish coast); the waters around Beachy Head; and the Flamborough and Helgoland Front, in the North Sea.

"It is ironic that despite our global importance for seabirds we’re consistently failing to protect them at sea"

Since 1979, the UK Government has had the power to designate marine sites of European importance for birds under the European Union Birds Directive.  But, so far, it has dragged its feet and is currently running 30 years behind schedule, with only a minimum number of sites designated so far.


There is also new legislation in England and Wales enabling the designation of marine sites that are important at a national level. Currently, there are four English projects and one Welsh project – involving a range of stakeholders – selecting a network of nationally-important marine protected areas under the Marine and Coastal Access Act, enacted in 2009. But these projects have been guided to largely exclude seabirds from the designation process around English coasts and restrict the number and size of sites around Wales, meaning that some of the best and most important sites are not even being considered. Furthermore, the UK Government has recently revealed that it does not expect to complete its ecologically-coherent UK network of marine protected areas until at least 2015 – three years after the internationally-agreed deadline of next year.

Kate Sugar added: “It is ironic that despite our global importance for seabirds we’re consistently failing to protect them at sea. The UK has the largest European Union population of 15 species of seabird, including puffin, gannet and kittiwake. Therefore, it doesn’t seem appropriate that countries with shorter coastlines and smaller sea areas, like Germany and Denmark, are shaming the UK with the extent of their marine protected area networks.”

The RSPB is urging that people step up for nature and support the RSPB campaign to ensure seabirds are fully protected. To sign the RSPB pledge and call on UK Government ministers to ensure that seabirds are safeguarded at sea please visit:

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