Dogger Bank: death by a thousand cuts?

A satellite image of Dogger Bank. Photo: NASA/Wikimedia
A satellite image of Dogger Bank. Photo: NASA/Wikimedia

Member States have an obligation to ensure that fishing activities do not adversely impact the environment, especially where marine Natura 2000 sites have been designated.

Nevertheless, establishing measures to minimise impacts on such sites has been a slow and tortuous process. Recently, we expressed our support for, what we believed at the time, a step forward in implementing fishing rules in the Dogger Bank, the North Sea’s largest sandbank in which three Member States – Germany, the Netherlands and the UK – have designated adjoining Natura 2000 areas.

Although NGOs still considered it the bare minimum, extensive stakeholder discussion initially resulted in measures that could have ensured the protection of about one-third of the whole sandbank from mobile bottom fishing gear and still allowed for fishing as a viable economic activity.

The proposal notably included a more ambitious 50% of the German Natura 2000 site to be fully protected from bottom gears.

However, a late compromise resulted in another bottom gear – seine fishing – being admitted to most of the proposed closures, bringing the total area protected down to a measly 5%. This is R.I.D.I.C.U.L.O.U.S.

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The EU is one step closer to eliminating seabird bycatch

A bycaught Cory's Shearwater. Photo: John J Borg
A bycaught Cory’s Shearwater. Photo: John J Borg

11 March was a historic day for European seabirds. After years of dialogue, the European Commission has proposed a new legislation that will make it mandatory for all fishing vessels in the EU that incidentally catch seabirds to put in place measures to stop them from doing so.

Seabirds forage in areas of the ocean that are rich in fish, which are also targeted by commercial fishing vessels. This overlap can cause seabirds to be accidentally caught on hooks or entangled in nets meant for the fish. It is estimated that at least 200,000 seabirds are accidentally caught annually in EU waters. This includes species on the verge of extinction such as the Balearic Shearwater. However, until today the EU had not enacted any legally binding legislation for fishers to solve this problem. This proposed legislation is a game changer.

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Troubled waters for our seabirds

Common eider © Dave Maher, Flickr

Did you know that we have 82 species of seabird in Europe? You probably recognise the most charismatic ones, like the clown faced Atlantic Puffin and sharp blue-eyed Northern Gannet. But there are many other species you may not know because they actually spend nearly their entire lives out at sea and so are rarely seen, only coming to our shores to breed before flying off again into the deep blue.

Many of these species are in trouble, facing declines and possible extinction based on the latest scientific information. The current situation is clear: urgent action is needed so they don’t disappear from Europe forever.

Why is the fate of our seabirds so grim today? They have been facing multiple threats: climate change, which amongst other impacts can make it more difficult for seabirds to find food; they often risk being caught and killed accidentally in fishing gear; they are losing breeding and feeding habitat because of infrastructure on land and at sea; they are being preyed on by invasive rats, cats and foxes; and poisoned or choked by marine litter and oil pollution.

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Why protected areas matter

Zakynthos, Ionian Sea © Greek National Tourism Organisation

This summer when you visit the seaside you might come across a stretch of beach that’s off limits – a coastal ’marine protected area’. You might get annoyed when looking down at that empty glorious soft sand, and then have to turn back to that tourist packed, noise polluted beach…why would anyone do this to you? Don’t take it personally, an off limit beach isn’t there to offend, it serves a purpose. It’s a special place that has been set aside to protect a wild animal, plant, or habitat.

Just think, if you wouldn’t enjoy a beach jammed with tourists, what animal would? Take sea turtles, who burrow their eggs in the sand – tourists on the beach can only mean one thing: a mixture of scrambled eggs and sand. Even worse, sea turtles wouldn’t dare venture up onto a beach in the first place if they spotted people sprawled on towels, children running around, kites flying, and beach volleyball courts.

Obviously, an area that’s protected doesn’t mean you can’t go to another beach to sunbathe, take a dip and enjoy – it’s just that some of the coast needs to be shared with wild animals and plants that wouldn’t otherwise survive if people were around.

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Marine SPAs: a landmark in marine conservation in Spain

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I have the opportunity of starting my first blog entry with really good news! Last Thursday 17th of July the Spanish Government approved the designation of 39 marine SPAs, adding almost 50.000 km2 to the existing Nature 2000 network at sea in Spain. This represents a 20-fold increase in the surface of marine SPAs, and brings hope for the effective protection of our most threatened seabirds.

The proposal is the result of 10 years of work of SEO/BirdLife and the whole BirdLife partnership, as well as many, many, many collaborators. Two LIFE projects are behind these efforts: “Important Bird Areas for seabirds (marine IBAs) in Spain” (2004-2009) and “INDEMARES” (2009-2014). In addition, the Interreg FAME project (2010-2014) has also contributed to this final outcome. Special mention deserves SPEA, who developed a sister LIFE project to identify the marine IBAs in Portugal (2004-2008).

Behind the proposal lay hundreds of unforgettable days at sea counting seabirds (over 60,000 km) and in seabird colonies tagging birds to track their movements, plus even more time devoted to data analysis, technical and political meetings, participative workshops,… The process was frustrating in occasions, but overall it has been an exciting time, and we must congratulate all  of us for the acheivement. Next step, the management plans!

Pep Arcos, Coordinator of the Marine Programme of SEO/BirdLife