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Sand eel

Puffin with sandeels in beak

Image: Chris Gomersall

Sand eels are slim, long, usually silver coloured fish and eel-like in shape and movement. They are around 30cm in length. They live in all seas but are especially abundant in northern seas.

These small, slender fish are usually found shoaling (gathering in very large groups) over the seabed or buried in the sand. Sand eels feed on zooplankton (tiny sea creatures) and small fish. Sand eels are common food for diving birds such as puffins. Marine mammals, such as seals and porpoises also eat them, and they are also fished for humans to eat.

Threats

Seabirds, whales and other marine animals may be finding it difficult to find the food they need to survive. This shortage may be caused by a rise in sea temperature brought about by climate change, which allows different zooplankton species - which sand eels do not eat - to move in. This is reducing the numbers of sand eels or causing them to move away. Over fishing also makes the situation worse.

Why save them?

Sand eels are an important food source and a vital part of marine food chains. Research on seabirds shows that there is a strong link between breeding success and survival and the number of the sand eels they eat.

It is known that there are fewer sand eels in warmer waters. Researchers say this is bad news. If, as predicted by climate change models, the waters of the
North Sea continue to warm, the numbers of sand eels are expected to continue to decline, so there will be fewer sand eels for the many other creatures to feed on, meaning their numbers will also decline.

What is being done? What can you do?

Until now, we've not been able to protect areas of the sea for wildlife like we do on land.

Luckily, new laws mean that there can now be nature reserves at sea. This will give creatures that live in or depend upon the sea safe areas to live and feed. The new laws will cover the seas around England, Wales and Scotland. We expect a similar one for Northern Ireland and hope this won't be too far behind.

Here are some websites where you can find out more about sand eels and other marine life:
http://www.rspb.org.uk/youth/join_in/sealife/index.asp
http://www.rspb.org.uk/marine