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Puffin taking off from the sea at Lundy | Credit: Philip Lymbery

Sumburgh Head, Shetland, and a timeless love story is being played out. Dressed in what looks like black and white Tuxedos and gently touching each other’s wildly colourful bills, a pair of puffins have reunited at their nest hole after months at sea. 

It’s a scene played out along our coastlines at remote seabird colonies each spring. And one that conservationists fear might soon be something our grandchildren may never get the chance to see. The reason being that these charismatic ‘clowns’ of the clifftops are under pressure from climate change and overfishing. Their survival relies on being able to catch enough fish to feed their families. Yet commercial fishing for sandeels, tiny silver fish that form their favoured prey, has depleted stocks. Much of the sandeel catch goes to feed intensively farmed animals.

As part of a UK bid to save the long-term future of the puffins, the Scottish Government recently banned commercial sandeel fishing in its waters. It’s not just puffins that stand to benefit. Sandeels are an essential part of our marine ecosystem and a critical component of the food chain.

Yet the battle for survival isn’t over. Fishermen in Denmark are supporting a challenge by the European Union to the UK ban, claiming they have lost half of their fishing grounds because of the new restrictions.

What we do in the sea influences life on the land and vice versa. Upholding the ban in Scottish and English waters is vital to prevent an ecological disaster affecting our wider environment. 

Sandeels – Vital food for puffins

These themes and more are worth reflecting on during the United Nations (UN) World Environment Day (5th June) and World Ocean Day (8th). 

The ocean is our planet’s life support and is what regulates the global climate system. It is the world’s largest ecosystem, home to nearly a million known species and containing vast untapped potential for scientific discovery. 

While we know little of the ocean compared to its immense vastness, what we do know is that the consequences of our actions are evident throughout its waters.

The decline of our oceans further exacerbates the triple planetary crisis affecting both land and sea: climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. This crisis is placing the world’s ecosystems under assault. Billions of hectares of land are degraded, affecting almost half of the world’s population and threatening half of global GDP.

Which is why action to transform food systems is so important. 

The UN has led calls for food system transformation through two groundbreaking summits recently. The EU is currently debating the future of its food and farming through a Strategic Dialogue. 

In Scotland, the Scottish Government has recently been consulting on its ‘Good Food Nation’ action plan. This aims to address the “undeniable challenges” of climate change and environmental degradation through a more sustainable food system that includes improving animal welfare. More recently, the Scottish Government has also announced plans for banning cages for laying hens and gamebirds. All of which is good to see. 

We cannot turn back time, but we can change things for the better. 

Note: This is a version of an article first published in The Scotsman on Friday 31st May 2024

Main Image: The beauty of the Puffin. Taken on the Isle of Mull, Scotland | Credit Philip Lymbery

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