Another Life: When seabirds go hungry, who is to save their share of fish?

BirdWatch Ireland says impact of fisheries on seabirds is thousands killed as bycatch

A long spell of high pressure steamrolled the inshore ocean to a silent parade ground, its empty days aching for the flights and cries of all the seabirds that weren’t there. Our terns and gannets have headed off to Biscay or west Africa. Irish puffins are now fishing for little capelin off Newfoundland. Guillemots are far offshore, shearwaters somewhere off Brazil and petrels perhaps as far as Namibia.

When they come back they will need sampling again to see if, and how far, their breeding colonies have declined. When Minister for Fisheries Michael Creed flies to Brussels on Monday, he may or may not have with him Life on the Edge: Seabirds and Fisheries in Irish Waters, a BirdWatch Ireland report urging more care to leave seabirds their proper share of food (download at Creed will be joining the annual council that fixes quotas for the EU fishing industry. In talks that go on into the early hours, he will trawl for Ireland's maximum quotas.

Ritually again, many agreed catches will exceed scientific advice. The new BirdWatch report uses widely cited analysis, by the think-tank New Economics Foundation, of outcomes from last December’s council. Ireland, it seems, topped the European league table for exceeding scientific guidance.

Our excess of tonnage for vital stocks was put at 26 per cent, even above Spain's 24 per cent, Sweden's 23 per cent and the UK's 19 per cent. (You can download a pdf of Landing the Blame: Overfishing in the Northeast Atlantic 2016 at A detailed response from the UK's National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations is at


Life on the Edge details local overfishing in, for example, the exhaustion of cod spawning stock in the Irish Sea over the past 30 years. At the 2016 fishery ministers' meeting, it reports, Ireland increased the quota for Irish Sea haddock by three times the advised landings. The new EU ban on dumping overboard ("discarding") fish that are over quota or undersized brings agreed problems for Ireland's mixed-catch fishermen, even with more selective gears and practices.

They are part of the global trend known as “fishing down the food web” in the ocean ecosystem. Having overfished the large, predatory species for human food, the industry has been moving to smaller, shorter-lived plankton-feeding “forage” fish, such as mackerel, sprat, sardine and sandeel, and to seabed organisms such as shellfish and Nephrops prawns (the latter, indeed, are Ireland’s most profitable fishery).

The absence of big hunting fish such as cod and tuna leads at first to an abundance of their smaller prey, then an industrial targeting of “forage fish” for human food or, as with sandeels, to nourish farmed salmon and intensive livestock numbers. Until more sustainable fishing arrives, plus a network of marine protected areas, the knock-on impact on seabirds could possibly grow severe.

Measuring it so far has lacked up-to-date knowledge. Annual monitoring of nests and chicks is confined to a few species at colonies on Ireland’s east coast: what is needed says Birdwatch, is a comprehensive national endeavour. Among the most difficult birds to count are burrow-nesting puffins. The most recent national census, in 2000, found a decline of 24 per cent since the 1960s. More recently, changes in the supply of forage fish, such as sandeels, has found them taking new prey species, such as snake pipefish.

More abundant in warmer seas, these bony fish not only choke the chicks but lack the nourishment for their survival. Breeding guillemots, terns and kittiwakes are also highly dependent on sandeels, which in turn need sandy sediments to live in. Kittiwakes have provided the clearest link to sandeel changes, with Irish colonies joining others to show marked declines; Life on the Edge urges protection of sandeel nursery areas. Direct impact of fisheries on seabirds is the thousands killed as bycatch, drowned in gill nets or caught on longline hooks which we know well from our experience with shallow-water longlines.

The Irish fleet has some 300 small vessels and some 30 bigger ones using gill nets, but Spanish longlining for hake has taken special blame for the bycatch of shearwaters, fulmars, kittiwakes and gannets. Further EU proposals for control have still to be agreed between member states. Bycatch deaths of birds, seals and dolphins are part of the global price of fish for human food, along with trawling that ploughs up seabeds and wrecks deep-water corals that are hubs of biodiversity.

Around Ireland, painstaking and costly monitoring of fish stocks by the Marine Institute and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea feeds expert, if widely resisted, advice into the political bargaining of EU member states. Its results emerge on the eve of Christmas, when public discussion is somewhat distracted. Without figures to show some new and devastating seabird loss, reports such as Life on the Edge can only strengthen the case for the "precautionary principle" in dealings with the ocean – so far a worthy, if largely frustrating, task.

Michael Viney's Reflections on Another Life, a selection of columns from the past four decades, is available from