A Danish fleet of 250 boats takes a million tonnes a year of the tiny fish in an "industrial" catch - they are not sold for human consumption but processed into fishmeal, oil and margarine, and at one time were burnt in power stations.
But overfishing has in the past caused seabird populations to fall dramatically, and yesterday the Fisheries minister, Elliot Morley, proposed to the European Commission that sandeel fishing should be banned in a large area each year from April to August, the seabird breeding season.
The area is in international waters off the east coast of Britain, from Humberside to the Orkneys, and in places is more than 50 miles wide.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said it was delighted by the proposal but the leader of Denmark's 4,500 fishermen, Niels Wichmann, denounced it as "complete and utter nonsense". He said: "We will oppose this vigorously, as we will oppose anything that is just a political stunt."
The million-tonne catch taken out of the North Sea by Denmark's fleet has concerned British fisheries officials as well as environmentalists, as it far exceeds that of any other species. For example, only 50,000 tonnes of cod are caught annually by all North Sea boats together.
But it is the potential effect on seabirds in particular that has led to the proposed ban. In 1984 the 30,000 pairs of Arctic terns in the Shetlands failed to breed, and the failure continued for seven years until the Shetland sandeel fishery was banned. During its closure, from 1991 to 1994, the tern population gradually recovered. The fishery has been reopened but is strictly regulated.
Arctic terns and puffins in particular are totally dependent on baby sand eels to feed their young but other seabirds are also heavily reliant on them.
The Government's action follows a report on fishing's effect on wildlife from the official scientific body that regulates North Atlantic fish stocks, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. It advised a precautionary approach for the sandeel fishery and recommended seasonal closures.
"If the closure can be agreed, it will at the same time provide a safeguard for other wildlife in the area, including dolphins, harbour porpoises, salmon and sea trout," Mr Morley said.Reuse content