Filey is a small and proud fishing town, situated eight miles south of Scarborough in North Yorkshire. There has been some form of fishing here for hundreds of years, including a fisheries dispute in the 12th Century between boats from Filey and Whitby, which had to be settled by none other than the Pope. In Filey Bay itself, there has been a long-standing salmon and sea-trout fishery for many years, which uses static gillnets placed at right angles to the shore to trap the fish passing along the bay.

 Filey fishing cobles taking visitors in the 1930s (c) Rodge Dowson Collection

Filey Bay is also heavily used by feeding seabirds, particularly razorbills and guillemots, breeding at the colonies at Bempton Cliffs and Filey either side of the bay. These birds follow sandeels and other fish into the bay and are vulnerable to being caught in these static nets and, if not removed immediately, drowning.

In the past, hundreds of seabirds sadly died in this way at Filey but now the numbers caught are regularly down to a fraction of that, with many birds safely released alive, and the RSPB has been trying to develop our relationships with the gillnet fishermen and highlight the positive steps they have taken to reduce this tragic bycatch.

So on meeting local fishermen carrying your brand new orange lifejackets (RSPB health and safety policy, check!), you’re always going to get a bit of friendly stick. And when lightning is striking down around you, the jackets seem even more ridiculous. So it was last week when my colleague Rory and I took the opportunity (after the lightning had eased off) to get out on to two of the Filey gillnet boats with Rex, his son Alex, son-in law Dave and nephew Jordan. Rex has been fishing in the Bay for decades, seen first hand the birds being caught, and is championing ways to prevent birds being caught in future.


Rex and one of his boats. (c) Rory Crawford

After the trip. (c) Rory Crawford

The reduction in bycatch can be put down to a number of factors, not least regular monitoring (funded by the Environment Agency and Natural England), which provided the evidence for a byelaw for the month of June, requiring netsmen to use high-visibility netting, attend their nets at all times and not leave any nets out overnight. A voluntary code of conduct also operates for the rest of the fishing season.

These steps are helping the fishermen too. The high-vis netting along the straight part of the net (imagine the gillnet being a J-shape when viewed from above) has the added benefit that the fish also seem also to avoid it and swim into a more concentrated area at the curved end of the net. And staying with the nets allows the fishermen to get the fish before seals do, who won’t think twice about making off with their catch and leaving holes in the net.

The nets Filey fishermen now use to catch salmon and sea trout incorporate a high visibility section in green (or black in some nets) and a lower visibility silver-looking section. When set, the nets stand vertically in the water and catch fish through their gills (hence the term “gillnet”)

We are really keen to see how the lessons learned in Filey might apply in other parts of the world, where gillnets are a huge problem for seabirds and waterbirds – earlier this year, a study co-authored by RSPB/BirdLife scientists conservatively estimated that over 400,000 birds are killed each year as bycatch in gillnet fisheries, more than the global toll in longline fisheries. Around 76,000 birds are killed each year in the Baltic Sea alone. These are truly shocking figures, affecting a whole host of species – from more familiar species like guillemots to threatened species like the marbled murrelet, velvet scoter and yellow-eyed penguin.

However, unlike longline fisheries, the steps to reduce and eliminate bycatch from gillnets are poorly understood and little research is underway. In some places, there are major gaps in data on the level of gillnet bycatch, and naturally this hinders our ability to act. The RSPB and BirdLife are hoping to change that, by starting pilot projects that test mitigation measures to stop birds being caught – but it is critical that governments around the world prioritise this issue and support work towards identifying where the ‘hot spots’ are and what the solutions might be.

The number of birds caught in nets at Filey will always be influenced by natural factors (including the location of sandeel shoals and water visibility) as well as the work of fishermen and environmental organisations. In 2014, we’re hoping to increase our work at Filey to better support the netsmen, learn more about this fishery and better understand seabird bycatch in gillnets more generally. By doing so, the knowledge we gain from this work will inform long-term reductions in bycatch here, across the UK and potentially further afield. We also want to make sure that the fishermen taking steps to prevent bycatch, such as Rex, are recognised and try and make bycatch in Filey a thing of the past.