A New Marine SPA in Sussex

, 20 December 2017
A New Marine SPA in Sussex

There has been a marine extension to the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Special Protection Area (SPA), so that it now covers 424 square kilometres to include the feeding areas of seabirds nesting within the SPA - Sandwich, Common and Little Terns (above) all eat small fish.

Sandwich Tern pair displaying with a large Sandeel

This site is classified according to a Directive which provides a framework for the conservation and management of, and human interactions with, wild birds in Europe. SPAs are classified under the Birds Directive (EC Directive on the conservation of wild birds [79/409/EEC]). Classifying this new marine site represents a significant contribution to the UK Government’s commitment of creating a blue belt of marine protected areas in order to ensure that we protect and manage our seas sustainably now and in the future.

More detail and the map can be found at:


At Rye Harbour we have in recent years been the custodian of most of the breeding terns within the SPA. The enormous pressure on the nesting Sandwich, Common and Little Terns comes from:

  1. Badgers and Foxes, by predation.
  2. People and dogs, by disturbance.
  3. Lack of suitable fish close to the nesting colonies at the right time.

The first two pressures have been reduced at Rye Harbour by building islands and fences to create safer nesting sites, but we cannot influence the third factor of food availability.

Here is the history of nesting terns in the SPA...

Sandwich Tern above and Common Tern below (pairs with years along the bottom)

Little Tern pairs below (pairs, starting in 1936)

Fish populations have and are being affected by:

  1. intensive fishing with bigger and more powerful boats that dredge much of the seabed,
  2. enrichment of the sea by fertiliser run off and sewage
  3. and now warming of the sea.

We have only recently started to monitor the small fish in the sea and in some years it’s been difficult for us to catch many along the shore. A hundred years ago there was a flourishing fishery along the shore using static nets called Keddle Nets, just look at the fish in this old postcard…

We imagine that then, in most years, there would have been plenty of small fish in the sea to feed hungry seabird chicks. But today, it’s only about one in five years that the terns can find enough of the right fish for their chicks to grow up quickly and strong.

The terns can live a long time with the oldest and their UK breeding population being:

Sandwich Tern - 30 years 9 months – 11,000 pairs

Common Tern - 33 years 0 months – 10,000 pairs

Little Tern - 21 years 10 months – 1,900 pairs

But even so, all are Amber listed, because of recent breeding population declines.

It remains to be seen how making this marine SPA helps maintain the populations of breeding seabirds in Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay. But don’t forget that they all winter off the west coast of Africa where fish stock have been depleted by foreign factory fish, leaving the wintering terns and the small local fishermen chasing fewer fish.

It needs highlighting here that some of the consultees to the marine SPA extension were concerned about the possible detrimental impact on the local fishing industry, but surely a healthier sea for seabirds is a better sea for harvesting fish for ourselves.

Those of us interested in conserving nesting seabirds in Britain are also concerned with encouraging sustainable fisheries here and in Africa. A start for all of us would be to only buy fish recommended by the Marine Conservation Society at https://www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/search

A Common Tern feeding its chick with a small fish