Submission from the Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds
This response focuses on the use
of marine sites of special scientific interest, and the impact
of climate change on UK seabird populations.
There are serious shortcomings in
the current marine nature conservation framework. Progress on
the designation of marine Special Protection Areas in UK waters
(required by EU legislation) is unacceptably slow, and hampered
by inadequate data.
The UK's nationally important marine
wildlife needs better protection, and the forthcoming Marine Bill
must include provisions to identify and designate Nationally Important
Marine Sites, some of which will be highly protected, with all
damaging activity prohibited.
There is evidence that warming of
UK waters is changing the food web, creating food stress for certain
seabirds, adversely affecting their breeding success and survival,
and ultimately reducing population sizes. The strong dependence
of many seabird populations on sandeels, whose abundance is declining,
appears to be a key pressure point.
The Danish-led industrial sandeel
fishery must not aggravate the depletion of local aggregations
of this species on which breeding seabirds depend. There is a
strong case for maintaining indefinitely the closed area for sandeel
fishing off the east coast of Scotland/north-east England.
The geographical spread of comprehensive
research into climate change impacts on seabirds should be widened
beyond the current relatively circumscribed area of Scottish North
Sea coast to include other UK coastal regions. This should be
accompanied by full integration of seabird research efforts into
the Natural Environment Research Council-led Oceans 2025 programme.
The RSPB is a member of Wildlife
and Countryside Link, and the UK partner of BirdLife International.
Both have responded separately to this Inquiry, and we fully support
1. The RSPB is Europe's largest wildlife
charity, with more than one million members, and we manage one
of the largest conservation estates in the UK, comprising 200
nature reserves. We are part of the BirdLife International partnership,
a global alliance of independent national conservation organisations
working in more than 100 countries. The RSPB's policies are based
on detailed and comprehensive scientific research, and we have
considerable expertise on the operation of terrestrial and marine
ecosystems, and the factors governing bird population trends.
2. The RSPB, working with other NGOs through
Wildlife and Countryside Link, is campaigning for better management,
protection and conservation of important marine assets. We therefore
welcome the proposals for a Marine Bill, and we responded in detail
to the Government's Marine Bill consultation last summer. Although
we were disappointed that there was no draft Bill in the 2006
Queen's Speech, we are heartened by the promise of a Marine White
Paper this spring, and hope to see a full Bill in the 2007 Queen's
Speech. This must deliver strong measures for nature conservationif
it does not, it will be a squandered opportunity.
3. The RSPB is concerned about serious shortcomings
in the current marine nature conservation framework.
4. The identification of marine Special
Protection Areas (SPAs), required by the EU Birds Directive, is
crucially important to the conservation of seabirds of European
importance, but is far from complete: to date, only one true marine
SPA has been designated in UK waters.
5. The European Court of Justice (Case C-6/04,
European Commission vs United Kingdom, 20 October 2005)
has confirmed that the EU's Birds and Habitats Directives apply
within the territorial waters and the continental shelf and superjacent
waters of the UK. The Court also required the UK to implement
surveillance requirements for habitats and species of Community
interest, necessary in order to determine whether the UK is meeting
its conservation obligations under the Habitats Directive.
6. Among other things, this means the Government
must now identify, designate, monitor and manage a complete network
of European protected areas to meet the requirements of those
Directives in the marine environment: SPAs for birds and Special
Areas of Conservation (SACs) for other habitats and species of
European Community interest. Robust and comprehensive surveillance
data will be essential to underpin decisions on both the identification
and long-term management of these sites.
7. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee
(JNCC) has responsibility for surveying and identifying potential
marine SPAs to recommend to government for designation. JNCC has
identified a three-element approach to this work, which we broadly
support: (1) seabird breeding colony SPA extensions; (2) inshore
aggregations of non-breeding waterbirds; and (3) offshore aggregations
away from the coast at any time of year (eg foraging seabirds
from breeding colonies).
8. Elements 2 and 3 are the most challenging,
requiring substantial additional survey and analysis to ensure
that the resulting marine SPA network is fit for purpose, identifying
sites that reflect the most important areas for seabirds in the
9. We are particularly concerned about JNCC's
heavy reliance on European Seabirds at Sea (ESAS) data for element
3. Our concerns centre on the comprehensiveness of survey coverage
in both spatial and temporal terms, essential to ensure we protect
the right places. Much of the ESAS systematic survey data is at
least 10 years old, with more recent data tending to be gathered
in a patchy or ad hoc fashion, mainly from the outcomes of developers'
project-specific environmental impact assessments. Given the strong
evidence of a climate change-induced "regime shift"
in the North Sea (see later section on climate change impacts
on seabirds), data will become obsolete faster. Therefore, we
doubt that the existing ESAS database adequately reflects current
seabird distribution or the location of important concentrations.
10. In addition to these concerns, JNCC
timetable estimates for completing this work vary from 2011-17,
dependent on resources. Our concerns over the adequacy of available
survey data leave us sceptical about the ability to meet even
the 2017 timescale and deliver a coherent marine SPA network that
complies with Birds Directive requirements. Even if this timescale
were met, it would mean completion of the UK marine SPA network
some 36 years after the Birds Directive came into force. This
is unacceptable, both in terms of marine conservation obligations
and the UK economy.
11. The Government must carry out an ecologically-driven
assessment of the work needed to identify, designate and monitor
a marine SPA (and SAC) network within a timescale that fits as
closely as possible with its international commitments to implement
a marine protected area network, ie by 2010. This would benefit
both conservation and the economy, by providing greater certainty
over the location and protection of our most important marine
protected areas, such that they are fully taken into account in
planning the future management and use of the sea.
12. Even when complete, however, the Natura
2000 network of SPAs and SACs will not offer sufficient protection
to the full range of important marine species and habitats, to
the UK's nationally important marine biodiversity or to the marine
ecosystems that underpin so many goods and services. We are pleased
that the UK's commitment under OSPAR (protection of the marine
environment of the North-east Atlantic) to designate a well-managed,
ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas (MPAs)
by 2010 has also been identified as requiring new legislation
through the Marine Bill. However, this legislation must also ensure
proper protection of the UK's nationally important biodiversity.
We are therefore calling for the designation, protection and management
of Nationally Important Marine Sites (NIMSs) throughout the UK's
13. To safeguard these sites, features and
processes, the RSPB is calling, through the Marine Bill, for a
new mechanism for the designation of a network of OSPAR MPAs and
NIMSs, including provisions to create highly protected areas where
all damaging activities would be excluded. This mechanism would
replace the existing inadequate legislation on Marine Nature Reserves.
14. A network of sites should be designated
to protect, conserve and secure the recovery and enhancement of
vulnerable (rare, threatened or otherwise sensitive) species and
habitats. Such a network should include geological and physical
marine features, and ecological and geomorphological processes,
as well as ecosystem structure and functioning. Sites must represent
the full diversity and geographic range of species and habitats
found in the territorial waters around England, Scotland, Wales
and Northern Ireland, throughout UK waters and to the limits of
the UK continental shelf, and throughout EU waters and the OSPAR
15. New legislation must also include a
duty, not just a power, to designate sites. The Statutory Nature
Conservation Organisations (SNCOs) should be responsible for determining,
on a purely scientific basis, site selection criteria (with a
duty on the SNCOs to select sites according to agreed criteria,
based on a regional seas approach). Social and economic considerations
must not influence decisions about site identification, selection
and designation. The impacts of the designation of sites on socio-economic
interests should be considered through the preparation of management
plans, with the engagement of stakeholders. These would ensure
that any socio-economic activities within or affecting an MPA
would take place within the context of its conservation objectives.
16. To secure effective management of sites,
there should be a combination of both direct (ie proactive site
protection management tools) and indirect (ie through the licensing
of marine activities) controls over activities affecting (or potentially
affecting) MPAs. There should be a strong presumption against
activities that would have significant detrimental effect on MPAs.
17. Scientific data and information are
required to identify, select and designate all forms of MPAs.
Such data provides vital information on the location of particular
species and habitats, their status, and which human activities
they are sensitive to. Good data and information are also necessary
to ensure an effective management regime is put in place for each
designated site. Finally, there should be a requirement to monitor
the status of the features protected by the site to determine
whether the management plan is achieving its objectives.
18. Although marine science (survey and
research) in the UK is among the best in the world, there are
still gaps in our knowledge. We lack adequate coverage of data
on both a spatial and a temporal scale for many species and habitats
in UK waters. Our knowledge of the location and status of mobile
marine species such as cetaceans and seabirds is even poorer.
As noted above, these data gaps have already resulted in delays
to the designation of marine SACs and SPAs. In addition, the Government's
current reliance on industry surveys, carried out for environmental
assessment purposes, must end, as it leads to conflicts and delays
to projects when developers discover important wildlife at their
19. However, there is a view that, until
we know which are the best sites for a particular feature, and
where they are, no sites can be designated for that feature. If
the same thinking continues, there will almost certainly be long
implementation times for any new site protection mechanisms proposed
through the Marine Bill. The knock-on effect would be that the
UK would fail to meet its commitments to achieve targets for networks
of protected sites, such as those under the Birds and Habitats
Directives and OSPAR.
20. Data must be collected to fill existing
gaps, with resources made available for that purpose. Where data
does exist, resources should also be provided to ensure it is
analysed as quickly as possible, and then made public. This is
the information required to enable fully informed policy and management
decisions regarding the designation of all types of MPAs to protect
our marine natural resources and wildlife properly.
21. Delays in identifying, designating and
protecting important marine sites leave them vulnerable to damage
and destruction by human activities. Society cannot continue to
use the absence of a complete data set and absolute knowledge
of the UK's seas as a justification for negligence in providing
improved site protection for marine wildlife.
UK SEABIRD POPULATIONS
22. The UK holds internationally important
seabird populations, including over 90% of the world's breeding
Manx shearwaters, over 70% of northern gannets and 60% of great
skuas. We therefore have a special responsibility to protect them
from adverse impacts. Many seabird populations have prospered
over the last century, with the cessation of hunting, improved
colony protection, and the creation of a gratuitous food supply
through discards from fishing vessels. However, particularly on
the north and east coasts, some species have declined substantially
in the last two decades. There has been an increasing incidence
of years in which black-legged kittiwakes, arctic terns and arctic
skuas have struggled to find enough fish to feed their young.
23. A recent census of kittiwakes breeding
on Shetland, for example, showed declines of nearly 70% (37,000
pairs) between 1985-88 and 1998-2002. In 2004, kittiwakes suffered
their worst breeding success on record all along the North Sea
coast as far south as the RSPB seabird colony at Bempton (Yorkshire),
with widespread chick starvation. Breeding success of guillemots
also suffered badly in Scotland, many not even attempting to breed.
Productivity of several seabird species continued to be below
average in many areas in 2005 and 2006, and in both years failures
spread to the west coast, particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland.
24. In spring and summer, many of these
birds are highly dependent (often >90%) on sandeels as prey
for themselves and their young. There is some empirical evidence
that sandeel recruitment (likewise cod recruitment) is reduced
by poor planktonic feeding conditions due to warm winters. We
already know that, since the mid-1980s, rising sea surface temperatures
(SST) in the North Sea have profoundly changed (`regime shift')
the assemblage and spatial distribution of plankton on which larval
fish depend for survival and growth. There is, therefore, a strong
presumption that climate change is creating food stress for certain
seabirds, adversely affecting their breeding success and survival,
and ultimately reducing populations.
25. The strongest evidence for this linkage
comes from long-term demographic work by the Centre for Ecology
and Hydrology (CEH) on kittiwake populations on the Isle of May
(Firth of Forth), where warm winters depressing sandeel prey abundance
and quality have been invoked as a key factor in the birds' poor
breeding success. Winter survival of adult kittiwakes was also
lower after warmer winters, and this is likely to compound population
26. Poor breeding success was also linked
to sandeel extraction by the Danish-led fishery on the Wee Bankie
(Firth of Forth) in the 1990s. The relentless and unsustainable
rate of decline (6% per annum) of kittiwake populations in this
region (South-east Scotland) from 1989-2005 led to the establishment
(by the EU Fisheries Council) in 2000 of a closed area for sandeel
fishing stretching from North-east Scotland to Northumberland.
In the first ever use of a seabird as a proxy for the status of
a fish stock, threshold values of kittiwake breeding success were
used as criteria for the establishment and lifting of this particular
closure. The area has been closed continuously since 2000, and
remains so today.
27. Reversing the adverse effects of warm
winters willat bestbe a very slow process, and CEH
scientists have therefore argued that, as a precautionary measure,
the current closure of the commercial sandeel fishery should remain
in place "indefinitely", to safeguard the kittiwake
population in the hinterland. The RSPB strongly supports this
28. Since 2004, the Danish fleet has been
subject to a new set of harvesting rules for sandeels, such that
the main regulating tool is not now a blanket Total Allowable
Catch, but a level of fishing effort predicated on the strength
of sandeel recruitment (which is monitored annually, right up
to the traditional start of the sandeel fishing season in spring).
Since the inauguration of this new regime in 2005, fishing effort
has been curtailed, with adverse knock-on effects on industrial
fish processing capacity in Denmark. Accordingly, Denmark may
well argue for the lifting of the closed box off eastern Scotland
in order to increase its fishing opportunities for sandeels.
29. The RSPB therefore continues to urge
the UK Government to be vigilant and to resist any request from
Denmark to lift the ban on purely socio-economic grounds. Rather,
Ministers must support indefinite closure, in view of the continuing
decline of the kittiwake population in the region.
30. According to the Marine Climate Change
Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) Annual (2006) Report Card, "While
no direct link has been shown between SST increases, low sandeel
biomass and poor seabird breeding performance, the circumstantial
evidence is compelling". However, useful as this is as a
broad framework, and although seabirds (as top predators) have
manifest value as indicators of marine ecosystem status, the mechanisms
underlying these trophic (ie food chain) linkages are likely to
be complex and subject to high levels of uncertainty. Detailed
research is required to identify these mechanisms, to differentiate
between and give due weight to human (eg sandeel fishing) and
environmental drivers (eg long-term change in SST), and ultimately
to predict and mitigate change.
31. There is therefore a need for multi-disciplinary
work to address, coherently and strategically, the monitoring
of seabird populations, climate change, oceanography, plankton
community dynamics, fish stocks and commercial fisheries. Such
a programme will be invaluable in predicting the impacts of projected
changes in climate on the marine environment, and providing the
evidence base to underpin policy-making and design of monitoring
programmes. Initial efforts in this direction have already been
made by JNCC, with the inauguration in 2005 of the multi-disciplinary
Seabird Monitoring Programme Liaison Group.
32. For this work to be successful, however,
certain conditions must be met. Firstly, while there has been
a traditional focus on the North Sea, which must be maintained
(it is one of the best-studied regional seas in the world, with
high-quality data sets and long time series), effort must also
be spread across a range of UK waters. This would allow capture
of responses to a variety of anthropogenic influences, such as
fisheries, and fundamental differences in oceanography (bathymetry,
hydrography etc). Only by working across a range of locations
will we be able to gauge and understand the causes of variation
in seabird performance across sites and years, and predict long-term
impacts on populations.
33. Secondly, there is a growing need to
integrate the efforts of different research agencies to facilitate
the linkages between different trophic levels and to combine these
with expertise in oceanography and climate. A significant step
in this direction has been made with seven prestigious UK Marine
Centres recently joining forces to seek funding from the Natural
Environment Research Council for a coordinated strategic research
programme, Oceans 2025. This strategy will pursue a number of
research themes highly relevant to the Committee's Inquiry, including
"Climate, ocean circulation and sea level", "Biodiversity
and ecosystem function" and "Integration of sustained
observations in the marine environment".
34. The creation of this consortium is a
huge step forward in addressing the need for coherence between
disciplines. However, the role of seabirds in the ecosystem is
a glaring omission from this new integrated structure, and all
the more surprising because due weight is given to the role of
other top predators through the inclusion of the Sea Mammal Research
Unit. An obvious way to redress this would be to include in Oceans
2025 CEH's internationally important work on the mechanisms and
processes linking seabird population status and behaviour to diet
and the marine trophic structure. Oceans 2025 would benefit greatly
from the great strides this group is making in unravelling the
impacts of climate change on UK seabird populations. For its part,
CEH's synergy with the seven other Marine Centres in Oceans 2025
organisations would be of immense benefit in progressing this
vital seabird work.