The government has given itself an “alarming loophole” to prevent seabirds, including puffins and gannets, from being protected, a leaked document shows.
Campaigners have accused ministers of “giving up” Britain’s seabirds as they plan to request an exemption from a legal duty to protect the rare species.
Every year, the government sets itself goals to protect the marine environment and wildlife, and one of those goals is to halt the decline of seabirds. Of the UK’s 25 breeding seabird species, 24 have been given red or orange status on the list of birds of conservation concern, meaning they are in danger of extinction.
The UK’s marine strategy, as seen by the Guardian, indicates the government has shown signs that it plans to request exemptions from its legal duty to protect seabirds.
The strategy, first published in 2012, imposed a legal obligation on the government to comply with 15 measures to achieve “good environmental status” by 2020. One of the goals was to halt the decline of seabirds. So far, the UK has failed to meet 11 of those targets, and progress towards the target of halting the decline of seabirds is deteriorating from its 2012 starting point.
Seabird numbers in the UK have fallen by almost 25% in less than four decades – a loss of over 2 million seabirds compared to 1986. The situation is at its worst in Scotland, where population numbers have nearly halved during this time.
Reasons for the decline of seabirds include fisheries sucking up sand eels and other small fish they like to eat, invasive species introduced to the islands on which they breed, and birds accidentally caught by fishing trawlers.
The UK contains significant populations of seabirds worldwide, including puffins, kittiwakes and razorbills. Seabirds are also an important indicator of the health of the seas and the coastal environment.
Katie-Jo Luxton, the RSPB’s conservation director, said: “We know targets and deadlines alone won’t increase seabird numbers, but they are important in setting out the ambition of what our governments need to achieve to reverse the decline. We therefore urge governments to reconsider this decision to give themselves a loophole that could mean taking urgent action to save seabirds is no longer a priority.
“If our politicians are to deliver on their promises to restore wildlife, we need to see this reflected in the decisions and actions they are taking now. If the British marine strategy’s aim is to restore our seas before it’s too late, we have to ask why our governments don’t want to be held responsible for failing to meet the seabirds indicator.
“Because the UK wants to play a leading role in the [Convention on Biological Diversity] Police officer to restore wildlife, why is it sending a message saying it’s giving up British seabirds?”
A spokesperson for Defra said: “The UK Government is a world leader when it comes to protecting our seas, and we continue to work to improve the protection of our iconic seabird populations. We have established an extensive network of Special Protection Areas for seabirds and are developing an ambitious seabird conservation strategy to address the other pressures our seabirds face.”