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Seabirds need effective marine conservation in wake of discard ban, warns study

21 March 2013 British Ecological Society (BES)

Conservationists have renewed urgent calls for effective marine protection in European waters, after a new study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, revealed that the recent EU ban on fish discards could have a significant short-term impact on some seabirds.

The research, led by scientists from Plymouth University in collaboration with RSPB and with funding from NERC, found the new EU policy, outlawing the dumping of fish at sea, is unlikely to pose a serious lasting threat to most seabirds, but recommends the need to build resilience into seabird populations by protecting habitats and ensuring a sufficient supply of food.

For several decades, a number of seabird species have grown accustomed to feeding on discards, the excess catch thrown back into the sea mostly because fishermen have exceeded their quotas. Buoyed by this bonanza, populations of several seabird species have boomed.

However, in the biggest change in European fisheries management for a generation, last month the European Parliament voted to scrap the controversial practice of discarding.

The Plymouth University review article revealed that scavenging species such as great skuas and large gulls, which have come to rely on discards, may be among the first to suffer due to an immediate shortage of food. However, by their very nature, these opportunistic feeders should be able to switch to alternative food sources - provided they exist - although scientists acknowledged there is a risk that some seabirds may switch to preying on other seabirds. Concern is also expressed for the ‘critically endangered’ Balearic shearwater which makes significant use of discards.

In a bid to mitigate this short term impact, the RSPB is renewing calls for Marine Protected Areas, to ensure that seabird foraging areas and prey populations are ready to cope with an increased demand for wild caught food.

Dr Euan Dunn, Head of Marine Policy at the RSPB said: “This long overdue ban helps to put our seas back on an even keel, and restore our seabirds to the balance they had with the marine environment before the advent of industrial-scale fisheries. Seabirds are a hardy bunch and we are heartened by the conclusion that most will weather the storm of a discard ban. Nevertheless the loss of discards could pile the pressure on the UK’s seabirds already depleted by climate change-driven changes to their marine food chain. It underlines the need to build as much resilience as we can into their wider protection both on land and at sea. This research once again highlights the importance of marine protected areas, particularly in the short term as species adapt to necessary changes in fisheries management, and emphasises the vital role for government to play in the conservation of our internationally important seabird populations.”

Dr Stephen Votier, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology at Plymouth University, said: “Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy is long overdue and hopefully the changes this brings will be beneficial for seabird populations throughout the EU. However marine ecosystems are inherently complex making it hard to predict precisely what will happen. For instance a discard ban may have negative impacts as some scavengers switch to feed on alternative prey, such as smaller seabirds, or by moving into novel habitats. Conversely there may be positive impacts associated with a reduction in accidental bycatch of seabirds attracted by discards to fishing gears and, in the long-term, a return to a more ‘natural’ seabird community. Our study also highlights that despite many years of research, we still have a great deal to learn about how seabirds will respond to changes in the marine environment - we need a coordinated effort between conservation agencies and scientists to plug these important knowledge gaps."

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