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How can Scottish Government stop EU boats ‘hoovering up’ sand eel off Fife coast and harming region’s vulnerable seabird colonies?

images linked to Scottish Government's attempt to stop industrial sand eel fishing.

Danish and Swedish boats could be stopped from “industrial” sand eel fishing off the Scottish coast under new Scottish Government measures.

Rural affairs secretary and Angus MSP Mairi Gougeon has told her civil service team to draw up “management measures” amid growing concerns.

The Scottish Government minister wants to tackle the sand eel fishing problem because of the effect it has on vulnerable seabird populations.

Ms Gougeon said she had told her officials to consider it a “matter of urgency”.

What does Scottish Government intend to do about sand eel fishing?

The RSPB has warned fishing pressure is helping to drive seabird populations to “breaking point” in the area around the Forth and Tay.

They include kittiwakes, puffins and gannets.

A Pittenweem-based fisherman drew attention to Swedish and Danish boats operating in the seas close to the Forth over the previous weeks.

Secretary for Rural Affairs Mairi Gougeon.

Responding to a question in Holyrood this week, Ms Gougeon said:

“It remains an overarching and long-held Scottish Government position not to support fishing for sand eel or other industrial species in our waters.

“The issue is the wider ecosystem. That is why I have committed to looking at the issue as a matter of urgency.”

What harm are the foreign boats causing?

The Swedish and Danish boats were described as “hoovering up” the small fish. Buyers then process the sand eels into pig food.

Alex Kinninmonth is the head of marine policy at the RSPB Scotland.

He said: “Every year industrial fishing fleets – mostly from Denmark – remove hundreds of thousands of tonnes of sand eels from the North Sea.

“This then makes it harder for seabirds to find enough of the small oily fish to feed their chicks.”

Alex Kinninmonth.

Alex, who was brought up in St Andrews, said populations had stabilised over the last decade. Huge risks remained, however.

“The fishing pressure is likely to be making an already bad situation worse. In coming years offshore wind in the region will only add another threat so populations will be at breaking point.”

He said the RSPB had been working to highlight the issue, which has affected seabird populations for decades. The charity is calling for tougher controls on sand eel fishing.

Do foreign boats have the right to fish?

The December 2020 trade and co-operation agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union entitles EU vessels to fish in UK waters.

A 2021 bilateral agreement, which was finalised last week, sets a sand eel quota.

North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrats, raised the matter with Ms Gougeon in parliament this week.

He welcomed the Scottish Government’s response. Mr Rennie went on to challenge the rural affairs secretary to set out further detail.

He said industrial sand eel fishing had contributed to a 50% reduction in kittiwake numbers.

Boats clustered off the Fife coast.

“In the past month, more than 20 Swedish and Danish boats spent days off the Fife coast hoovering up tonnes of sand eels for pig meal,” said Mr Rennie.

“Local fishermen and RSPB Scotland are very concerned about the impact on seabirds.

“We need action now. I want the minister to think of the puffins and set out the urgent action that will be taken on sand eels.”

We approached the Swedish and Danish UK embassies for comment.

Sand eel fishing is a long standing problem.

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