Our seabirds are in trouble. This is due to a number of reasons, including dwindling food resources as a result of a climate change related drop in ocean productivity, and overfishing; loss of breeding habitat, and the introduction of invader species on breeding islands; and the effects of pollution, both from oil spills, and discarded plastic, which they can become entangled in, or die after eating plastic waste material.
Save the Albatross
The most threatened seabird in the world is the magnificent albatross. These iconic birds of the sea face all the above threats, but the greatest threat facing the albatross is death by drowning after swallowing baited hooks set by longline fishing boats. Every year hundreds of thousands of albatrosses and petrels die as a result of bycatch to the longline fishing industry.
Longline fishing vessels set extremely long lines – sometimes stretching for up to 80 miles (130 km) – with up to 20,000 baited hooks dangling from each line. According to the RSPB, longliners set approximately three billion hooks annually, which kill around 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses every year. Depending on the targeted species, longlines can be set near the surface (demersal longlining), or much deeper, near the sea floor (pelagic longlining). The lines that are set near the surface pose the greatest danger to seabirds, who are attracted to the bait, which they readily grab before it sinks. Albatrosses dive for the baited hooks, become hooked, and get drowned as the bait sinks underwater.
However, longlining is not the only fishing practice that is killing albatrosses. Every year thousands of albatrosses are killed during trawling operations, either from becoming entangled in trawl nets, or from colliding with cables that are used to haul the nets onboard.
International conservation organizations such as Birdlife International, WWF, and the RSPB are working together to devise strategies and methods to reduce the fishing related mortality of seabirds, particularly albatrosses and petrels, in the Southern Ocean. Together they have come up with a number of different initiatives, most of which focus on educating fishers, and implementing subtle changes in fishing gear design and/or deployment, which results in a win-win situation for both conservation and fisheries – less birds getting hooked, not only means reduced seabird mortality from bycatch, but it also means more baited hooks are available in the water to catch fish.
The solutions required to effectively reduce seabird bycatch in fishing gear need to be both simple, and cost effective, in order for them to be embraced by the fishing industry. A number of different solutions have been devised that can be used singly, or in combination, to reduce seabird bycatch.
- Bird Deterrents or Scaring Devices: Streamer lines (tori lines) are one of the most effective methods of reducing seabird mortality on longline hooks. Bird scaring lines are ropes that are fitted with a curtain of brightly colored streamers, which trail behind the vessel when the fishing lines are set, to scare birds away from the baited hooks. They are cost effective, easy to implement, simple to use, and require no modification to fishing gear. They can reduce bycatch of seabirds between 88-100%. Other bird scaring tactics include the use of acoustic devices, or water cannons, to scare birds away from fishing lines.
- Limiting Access to Baited Hooks: This can be achieved by underwater deployment of fishing lines by passing them through a chute – a large funnel, or tube, that hangs into the water from the back of the fishing vessel – that prevents the lines from floating near the surface, where they are easily accessible to seabirds. This method is less effective in rough seas, where the stern of the vessel may be lifted high out of the water as it rocks on waves, but is effective if used as a secondary mitigation measure. Using heavier weights on lines makes them sink quicker, as does the use of thawed, rather than frozen, bait. Side-setting of lines is another method that can reduce bird’s access to baited hooks – birds are less likely to approach the lines as they are being set next to the deck due to the activity onboard. Lines sink faster as there is no turbulence from propeller wash on the side of the vessel, and usually sink to a depth that is inaccessible to seabirds once they reach the stern of the vessel. Bait casting machines and line shooters can also be used to limit bird access to baited hooks, but are more effective if lines are weighted sufficiently. These methods are most effective when used in combination with a bird scaring device.
- Reducing the Likelihood of Seabird Interactions: Seabird-fishery interactions can be reduced by avoiding areas where seabird activity is intense. This can be achieved by setting seasonal closures of certain areas around seabird breeding grounds, or by setting lines at night, when bird activity is substantially reduced.
- Reducing the Attractiveness or Visibility of Baited Hooks: Many birds are attracted to fishing boats by the dumping of offal from bait or the processed catch. By refraining from dumping offal, birds are less likely to be attracted to the boat. Similarly, by making bait less visible, birds are less likely to be attracted to baited hooks. Squid used as bait in the pelagic longlining fishery can be dyed blue to make it less visible to circling seabirds, yet still effective at baiting targeted fish.
Albatross Task Force
Now that mitigating measures have been devised to prevent the unnecessary killing of albatrosses and other seabirds, this information needs to be relayed to the fishing industry, and to the fishermen who experience this first hand. This is being achieved by the Albatross Task Force, an international team of individuals who spread this information to fishermen and fishing vessel captains who operate in seabird bycatch hotspots in the ocean around South Africa and South America. Their mission is to educating fishermen about the different options available to reduce seabird mortality on longlines, and to help them choose a suitable solution to use onboard their fishing vessels. The Albatross Task Force also run workshops on land, working with fishing companies and fisheries management entities to research and develop suitable solutions. Albatross Task Force teams were initially established in South Africa and Brazil, but they are now active in seven countries. According to Birdlife International, since the Albatross Task Force began operating in 2006, it has reduced albatross bycatch by 85% in South African waters, and seabird bycatch by 100% in Chilean waters, close to 100% in the Argentinian trawl fishery, and in Brazil the use of simple bird scaring lines has reduced seabird bycatch by 56%.
While pirate fishing will always pose a problem because pirate fishing vessels are unscrupulous, operate illegally, and can’t be managed, pirate fishing in the Southern Ocean has been substantially reduced due to stricter controls, such as catch certification schemes, and more effective patrolling.
Let’s just hope that our magnificent albatrosses can recover, so that they may continue to effortlessly cruise the high seas in the future.