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The Guardian - UK

Rare UK seabirds put at risk by ‘alarming loophole’, say campaigners

Puffins on a cliff.
Populations of seabirds such as puffins are key indicators of the health of UK seas and coastal areas. Photograph: Paul Broadbent/Alamy

The government has given itself an “alarming loophole” to avoid protecting seabirds including puffins and gannets, a leaked document shows.

Campaigners have accused ministers of “giving up” on the UK’s seabirds as they plan to apply for an exemption to a legal duty to protect the rare species.

Each year the government sets itself targets to protect the marine environment and the wildlife within it, and one of those goals is to halt seabird decline. Of the UK’s 25 breeding seabird species, 24 are assigned red or amber status on the birds of conservation concern list, meaning they are at risk of local extinction.

The UK marine strategy, seen by the Guardian, indicates that the government has shown signs that it intends to apply for exceptions to its legal duty to protect seabirds.

The strategy, first published in 2012, imposed a legal duty on the government to meet 15 measures to achieve “good environmental status” by 2020. One of the targets was to halt seabird decline. So far the UK has failed to meet 11 of those targets, with progress towards the goal of halting seabird decline worsening from the 2012 starting point.

Seabird numbers in the UK and have fallen almost 25% in less than four decades – a loss of more than 2 million seabirds compared with 1986. Things are at their worst in Scotland where population numbers have almost halved in this time.

Reasons for seabird decline include the fishing industry hoovering up the sandeels and other small fish they like to eat, invasive species being introduced to the islands on which they breed, and birds being caught accidentally by fishing trawlers.

The UK contains globally important populations of seabirds including puffins, kittiwakes and razorbills. Seabirds are also a key indicator of the health of the seas and coastal environment.

Katie-Jo Luxton, the RSPB’s director for conservation, said: “We know that targets and deadlines alone will not see seabird numbers increase, but they are important in setting out the ambition of what our governments need to achieve in order to halt seabird declines. So we are urging governments to reconsider this decision to give themselves a loophole that could mean taking urgent action to save seabirds ceases to be a priority.

“If our politicians are to live up to their promises of restoring wildlife then we need to see this reflected in the decisions and actions they take now. If the intention of the UK marine strategy is to restore our seas before it is too late, questions must be asked about why our governments are seeking not to be held accountable for failing to achieve the seabirds indicator.

“With the UK aiming to play a leading role in the [Convention on Biological Diversity] Cop to restore wildlife, why is it sending a message that it is giving up on the UK’s seabirds?”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The UK government is a global leader when it comes to protecting our seas, and we continue to work on increasing protections for our iconic seabird populations. We have set up an extensive network of special protection areas for seabirds, and are developing an ambitious seabird conservation strategy to tackle the other pressures our seabirds are facing.”