Saving seabirds

Close up of a southern giant petrel, with wings raised
A southern giant petrel (Photo: Susan Doust)
Ardery and Odbert islands in Antarctica
Seabird protection received a boost this year through initiatives agreed at three major Antarctic meetings.

The fifth meeting of the Advisory Committee for the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), held in Mar Del Plata, Argentina, in April 2010, progressed a range of seabird conservation initiatives.

Among the key outputs of the meeting were revised ‘best-practice’ advice and fact sheets about ways to reduce seabird bycatch in trawl and longline (pelagic and demersal) fisheries. Pelagic longline fisheries generally, and especially those targeting tuna, have a very high risk of interactions with ACAP-listed species. A review of recent scientific literature and research results again confirmed that reducing the time baited hooks are near the surface and thus available to birds is critical for effective bycatch mitigation in these fisheries. To achieve this, best-practice advice currently advocates an appropriate line weighting regime, used in combination with other mitigation measures that further reduce accessibility of baited hooks, such as night setting, bird scaring lines and the avoidance of peak areas and periods of seabird foraging activity.

Other outputs from the meeting included updated analyses of global albatross and petrel population trends and a financial commitment to further work to reduce bycatch in tuna and other high seas fisheries managed by Regional Fisheries Management Organisations. While the data for several species and populations are dated or otherwise limited, of the 29 species listed under ACAP, 10 species continue to decline (Amsterdam albatross is the world's rarest species, with just 30 pairs breeding annually), six species show recent increases, seven species are stable and the trend for six species is unknown.

The Australian delegation to ACAP comprised Graham Robertson and Ian Hay from the Australian Antarctic Division and Rosemary Gales from the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment. Australian contributions to the meeting were very well received and included seven papers and data on several research projects into new or improved ways to reduce bycatch of seabirds in longline fisheries, a proposal to significantly change what and how ACAP Parties report on their conservation efforts, and recent monitoring and research on Australian breeding populations.

An outcome of this year’s Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) of interest to ACAP was the meeting's approval of revised management plans for four of the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) in the Australian Antarctic Territory. These were: ASPA 101, an emperor penguin colony at Taylor Glacier, and ASPA 102, a southern giant petrel breeding area at Rookery Islands (both west of Mawson); ASPA 103 – the Ardery-Odbert Islands, which provide petrel breeding sites near Casey; and ASPA 164 – Scullin Monolith, the greatest concentration of breeding seabird colonies in eastern Antarctica, east of Mawson.

In addition, biosecurity was discussed at both the ACAP meeting and the meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection, which met in parallel with the ATCM. Much of the impetus for bringing in quarantine protection for Antarctica arises from Australia's work on introduced species, including the risks of introducing poultry disease to Antarctic birds. Biosecurity risks to Antarctica are seen as increasing as a result of climate change, which is expected to improve the survival chances of organisms introduced from lower latitudes. Preventing introductions of alien species and disease is also a critical step in conserving breeding habitat and ACAP reviewed and adopted a detailed set of biosecurity guidelines for breeding sites of ACAP-listed species.

The ACAP work and the special protection afforded to seabird sites in Antarctica are positive steps in improving the survival of albatrosses and petrels across the Southern Ocean and beyond, where the simple term ‘bycatch’ hides the deaths by drowning of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of birds annually.

For more information on the ‘AC5’ meeting outcomes visit the ACAP website.

IAN HAY

Senior Policy Officer, Australian Antarctic Division