The Perplexing Politics of Puffin Protection

May 20, 2024

A plan put in place to protect puffins along Britain’s North Sea coast seemed simple enough: ban fishing on sand eels. The small, silvery fish are the brightly-beaked birds’ favorite food. If they can find more food, puffin populations should soar, experts say. But protecting puffins has caused political problems. That’s thanks to Brexit, Britain’s breakaway from the European Union (EU) in 2017.   

Britain has banned sand eel fishing in the North Sea. It has affected fishing communities in the EU, especially in Denmark. There, boats haul in 250,000 metric tons (551 million pounds) of sand eels every year. They're sold for fish oil and animal feed. By law, the waters belong to Britain. But as part of its breakup with the EU, Britain agreed to uphold some former deals. Fishing rights in the North Sea count, the EU argues.   

“Permanent closure of the sand-eel fishery deprives EU vessels from fishing opportunities,” the EU’s commissioner for the environment said in a statement. “It (breaches) basic commitments under the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).”

But conservationists in Britain fired back. Kirsten Carter is the head of marine policy at the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. She told the BBC: "We're absolutely disgusted to see the EU challenging this sand eel closure. Our seabirds are struggling. We've seen a 62% decline across species, a quarter of our puffins lost, our seabirds need these fish to feed their young and survive."

The debate marks the first dispute under the post-Brexit Britain/EU Trade and Cooperation deal. Both sides have failed to compromise. Thus, both will come before an EU dispute resolution panel. If it finds the sand eel fishing ban breaches the TCA, Britain could face penalties. They may include extra taxes from EU member nations.  

Reflect: If you were a judge in the puffin/sand eel fishing case of Britain vs. the EU, what facts would you want to know before you made a ruling?

GIF of a puffin with sand eels courtesy @oceanaorg on GIPHY.

Which of the following groups would most likely agree with the following statement: Saving sea birds like puffins is more important than any political agreements between countries. (Common Core RI.5.9; RI.6.9)
a. fishing communities in Denmark
b. EU court officials
c. a member of the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
d. the EU’s commissioner for the environment
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