Small birds lose out in North Sea pecking order

A A A

As the footballer Eric Cantona noted, when the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown in the sea - but British scientists have discovered that that isn't so true any more.

The reason: dwindling fish stocks - of cod, whiting and haddock - mean that fewer small fish are thrown back into the sea.

And so the bigger bird predators are instead attacking and feeding on smaller seabirds.

Researchers from a number of British universities have discovered that the schemes set up to protect the falling fish stocks in the North Sea are cutting the number of fish thrown back from trawlers.

That has meant that birds such as the great skua are going after black-legged kittiwakes, the northern fulmar, Atlantic puffin, common guillemot and the European storm-petrel in increasing numbers - which could have a dangerous effect on seabird populations, the researchers warn.

"Although it would not be appropriate to maintain current rates of discarding [of fish from trawlers] for the sake of seabirds, further drastic cuts in white fish catches in the North Sea will exacerbate the problem of great skua predation in the short term," the team notes in a paper in the science journal Nature published today.

Discarded fish are a surprisingly large source of food for seabirds: current estimates suggest there are 25 to 30 million tonnes of undersized fish discarded from trawlers every year.

The great skua, which lies at the top of the bird "food web" in the North Sea, has grown rapidly in numbers in the past century, partly because it is so large that it can fly the long distances required to follow fishing trawlers, and compete with other birds for the fish thrown back.

The team, led by Stephen Votier of the University of Glasgow, found that where there are more discarded fish, the skuas attack other birds less.

The cutback - to meet wider European needs to conserve fish stocks - of discarded fish could have a dramatic effect on the populations of other birds, the team estimates. If the number of skuas increases by 5 per cent, they might eat nearly one-third of the adult population of black-legged kittiwakes, according to a calculation that looks at the skua's energy needs.

But there is one possibility that could relieve the pressure on the smaller birds: the sandeel, a small fish which plays an important part in the diet of all of the seabirds and also of the cod and haddock.

Where sandeels are plentiful, the skuas tend to feed on those rather than birds - suggesting that there might be some hope to restore the balance of the North Sea's ecology.

Last month EU ministers continued a four-year ban on sandeel fishing off the north-east coast of Scotland, specifically to safeguard populations of puffins and kittiwakes. However stocks were found to be seriously depleted in 2003: Danish ships, which had a catch limit of nearly one million tonnes of North Sea sandeels, only managed to catch one-third of the allowance.

However, the findings of the latest study are likely to lead to calls for a wider ban across the North Sea on sandeel fishing - so future generations of skuas will have something to follow.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam