A life dedicated to saving seabirds

A pair of wandering albatrosses
One of Graham Robertsonís photographs of majestic wandering albatrosses, auctioned to Antarctic tourists to raise money for seabird bycatch mitigation research. (Photo: Graham Robertson)
Dr Robertson (left) and Dr Roger Kirkwood on a rock stack called Ildefonso, south west of Cape Horn, at the end of a challenging field program working with black-browed albatrosses. Dr Graham Robertson in 1988 at the start of his career with the Australian Antarctic Division, photographing huddling emperor penguins at Taylor Glacier in mid-winter for counting purposes.

Dr Graham Robertson has worked in the field of seabird ecology and seabird bycatch mitigation at the Australian Antarctic Division for the past 26 years.

Much of his work has involved research at sea to understand the interactions between albatrosses, petrels and fisheries, developing and implementing solutions to the problem of seabird mortality in longline fisheries, and advising national and international management and conservation bodies on bycatch mitigation.

His first job at the Antarctic Division, however, was a world away from where his future lay.

‘I came to the Antarctic Division in my mid thirties with a background in agriculture and botany, and my first job involved overwintering at Mawson for 14 months and studying the foraging ecology of emperor penguins,’ Dr Robertson said.  

‘I was really interested in field biology and thought this was the best job in the world – working with a beautiful bird that’s supremely adapted to its environment.’

A few years later, however, the issue of seabirds dying in longline fisheries captured his imagination and a deep-seated attraction to the conservation imperative. By the mid 1990s Dr Robertson was looking for a way in.

‘I decided I needed to get some experience and to understand the culture and practice of longlining, so I went to sea on Japanese high seas tuna boats as an observer and to conduct some experiments on a number of occasions.  Not long after that the issue of birds dying in Patagonian toothfish fisheries was raised at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), so I got involved in that.’

Dr Robertson attended the first meeting of the seabird bycatch working group of CCAMLR in 1996 and began working with toothfish fishers in the Falkland Islands. Over the next 10 years his work with both fisheries and CCAMLR contributed to conservation measures that virtually eliminated seabird bycatch in CCAMLR-regulated toothfish fisheries.

‘In 1997 some 5750 albatrosses and petrels were killed in South Georgia alone, but by 2007 the numbers of birds caught had declined to zero. It was a remarkable success story,’ he said.

He has since turned his attention back to tuna fisheries, most of which operate outside of CCAMLR, and which continue to catch unsustainable numbers of seabirds (see main story).

On his retirement from the Antarctic Division in July 2014, Dr Robertson said his most satisfying achievements were the implementation of science programs that resulted in changes to the conservation measures of CCAMLR and various tuna commissions, as well as changes to Australia’s domestic fisheries regulations.

‘It is not easy to get wins but when you do it is pretty satisfying,’ he said.

Dr Robertson plans to continue work in the seabird bycatch sphere, including work on his award-winning underwater bait setter for tuna fisheries. This high-tech machine instantly fires baited hooks 10 m deep, from the back of fishing vessels, and has the potential to completely eliminate fishery interactions with seabirds.

Some of the money to develop this technology has come from the sale of a number of Dr Robertson’s emotive photographs of the beautiful and charismatic birds he aims to save. Signed photographs are provided to Antarctic and subantarctic tourism operators who auction them off to their clients.

‘I think the tourists like the idea that the photographs were taken by the person doing the research,’ he said.

Reflecting on his time with the Antarctic Division, Dr Robertson said he was grateful to have been supported in his passion to see fisheries operate more sustainably.

‘I like working at the interface between conservation biology and primary industry – in this case fisheries – because primary industry is how the real world operates and this is where you can make a difference,’ he said.

‘It’s thrilling and satisfying to make a science finding that gets incorporated into management. It means all the years of trials and uncertainties have worked out.’

Wendy Pyper
Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division