Fishing gear bigger threat to birds than oil

More seabirds have been killed by fishing gear in the past 10 years in European Union waters than by oil disasters since the Torrey Canyon in 1967, conservationists said yesterday.

At least two million birds are estimated by the RSPB and BirdLife International to have been killed by baited hooks and fishing nets in the decade since the European Commission first promised action to halt the "slaughter". The conservation groups accused the Commission of dragging its feet over bringing in an action plan.

In other parts of in the world, rules which require fishing vessels to take simple steps, including hanging streamer lines over long-line fishing tackle to scare off birds, have seen mortality rates tumble.

In South Africa, the number of seabirds caught as "bycatch" in the inshore fishing fleet has dropped by 84 per cent since 2006 as a result of bringing in protective measures.

Conservationists will today present a 23,000-signature petition to Europe's new fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, demanding urgent delivery of the promised seabird action plan.

Among the birds most at risk is the Balearic shearwater, which, despite increased sightings in UK waters, has seen numbers decline considerably in the past three decades. The RSPB warns the bird – one of the rarest regularly visiting Britain – could be lost in a generation if there is a failure to put protective measures in place.

Dr Euan Dunn, the head of marine policy at the RSPB, said changes in fishing practices can be simple to introduce to reduce the number of birds killed by equipment, yet while such techniques are now "hard-wired" into many fishing fleets in the southern hemisphere, they are "tragically" missing in Europe.

He said the Commission failed to give the issue of seabird bycatch sufficient priority for its fishing vessels and he voiced deep concern that there is no obligation on member states to report on the number of birds killed accidentally by fishing vessels.

Nathalie de Snijder, a marine advocacy officer for BirdLife International, said: "The science is there; the solutions are there. All we need is for the Commission to finally take action."