Bridlington, Brexit and Sandeels

Conservation news


Its quite unusual to find that a government (of any political colour) makes a decision so celebrated in the marine conservation world that it wins an award. So Blue Marine Foundation’s Oceans Award for the UK Government’s decision to ban sandeel fishing in English and Scottish waters, deserves another shout out.

The award judges noted that not only was the sandeel population of the North Sea potentially in crisis but that seabirds, already devastated by avian flu, were beginning to starve.

Some 446,765 tonnes of sandeels – about 11 billion individuals – were caught in British waters in 2021. Sandeels – also known as sand lances – are long, thin fatty-fleshed fish used to make oil and meal which are used in the salmon farming industry and animal feed. Note, not for human consumption (!).

But while the impact of the fishing ban may have had some visibly immediate and positive effects (more later) for cetaceans, it’s hugely disappointing that the decision is now being challenged in the European courts, with the EU arguing that it “significantly restricts access for EU vessels to this fishery.”

That means French and Danish fishermen, who in the latter case claim to have lost half of their fishing grounds due to the new restrictions. Denmark hauls in approximately 100,000 tonnes of sandeels from UK waters every year – a catch valued at US$43 million. A report this week on the CNA news site said that the European Commission is challenging Britain’s ban, saying it “..breaches post-Brexit international trade agreements…” and adding that if the UK does not reach a compromise with the bloc, escalation could eventually lead to sanctions against Britain. So far, the EU’s sabre-rattling has come to naught, and with the UK authorities standing firm, the next stage would be for it to apply for arbitration, which it seems reluctant to do. One insider was quoted as saying that; “neither side is in a hurry” though the imminent UK election may have something to do with that.

Just this week, two bits of evidence served to indicate just how important sandeels are to cetaceans in UK waters, both centred on the Northeast England coastal town of Bridlington. Boat trippers were thrilled to see a group of bottlenose dolphins off Bridlington’s Bempton Cliffs, with some suggesting that the pod is more usually located in Northern Scotland but regularly travels south looking for food (

And in another BBC report today, an off-duty fisherman spotted his very first humpback whale as he sailed between Bridlington and Flamborough Head. Describing it as a “really special” experience. He went on to say that the sea was "full of sandeels at the moment" and had spotted puffins, gannets and gulls with "mouthfuls of them", which he believed might be what attracted the whale so close to the shore.

It may be something of a stretch to say that this is down to the ban, but given the extraordinary offtake of sandeels previously being hoovered out of the North Sea, it’s not an exaggeration to say that marine wildlife is clearly benefiting from not having to compete with profit-driven commercial fisheries. This thought is reason enough not to compromise if and when the UK Government finds itself in court.

Watching whales and dolphins living free in the wild is one of the most awe-inspiring sights imaginable, but did you know you can experience it right on your doorstep? ORCA's ever-popular Sea Safari trips are back and bigger than ever with NINE opportunities in 2024 to travel from Rosslare or Plymouth and see whales and dolphins living right on our doorstep. To join one of these incredible minicruise, just visit and book your place so that you can see incredible marine wildlife in our waters.

Book your place today!