Reducing seabird mortality

Reducing seabird mortality

Video transcript

The albatross is one of the world's most spectacular birds. They breed on land but spend most of their time at sea, and can live up to 60 years. When raising their young they're capable of flying several thousand kilometres in one flight, in search of food.

Because they're such long distance travellers they frequently encounter long line fishing boats. The waters off Uruguay are a popular migration destination for albatross around the world.

Sebastián Jiménéz: "This is a feeding ground for many species of seabird from all around the globe. Many of these species are associated with longline fisheries. In our region the most important species are the black brow albatross, the wandering albatross from South Georgia Islands, and also species from New Zealand – like the royal albatross."

As a result of long line fishing, 19 of the world's 24 albatross species are now endangered. Thousands of these magnificent birds are being killed every year.

Graham Robertson: "At the moment we're 175 miles east of Uruguay on the fishing routes… where they target broadbill swordfish and various species of tunas and blue sharks. And we're here to do an experiment on the seabird avoidance effectiveness of a new technology … recently developed technology, which is the machine on my left."

This is the underwater bait setter, also known as the capsule. It's a baited hook deployed underwater through a stainless steel capsule: a revolutionary new device designed to reduce the number of seabirds that die needlessly in longline fishing in the southern hemisphere.

In typical longline fishing, the deckhand simply throws the baited hook overboard. The seabirds see the floating bait as food; swallow it, become hooked and drown when the longline sinks. Every year hundreds of millions of hooks are set in this way for tuna and swordfish.

The bait setter aims to avoid this danger by setting the hooks deep underwater where the seabirds can't get to them. The machine is simple to operate; and after the initial training period, requires no extra work by the crew than the previous model.

Uruguayan fishing master Alfredo Olaya say the experience of working with the bait setter has been extremely positive for him and his crew.

Alfredo Olaya: "The most important thing for me at the moment has been able to introduce a new concept to all the sailors and members of the crew on board this vessel. That is, the concept of responsible fishing. It means to avoid as far as possible, seabird mortality; irresponsible fishing: for example catching juveniles or fish that ought not be caught or discarding things at sea that ought not to be discarded."

In the future, once testing is complete this seabird-friendly device will be available for swordfish and tuna fisherman around the world. This is an important step to stem the catastrophic reduction in albatross numbers and encourage the adoption of sustainable fishing practices.

[end transcript]

Several albatrosses in the water, fighting over fish
Bullers and white-capped albatrosses fight over fish lost from a longline. (Photo: Graham Robertson)

Practices by fishing vessels

Reducing seabird kills in longline fisheries is helped by

  • adding weights to branch lines to make them sink faster
  • lines of streamers trailing behind vessels over the area where hooks enter the water
  • setting lines in total darkness

The combination of line weighting, night setting and streamer lines can reduce mortality of most seabird species by up to 90%. Retaining all offal or managing offal discharge to avoid discharge during setting or hauling of lines, can also help reduce seabird interactions and bycatch.

The setting of longlines at night, with effective streamer lines in use and weights near hooks, would probably reduce seabird deaths to levels that are safe for most seabird species. Unfortunately most fisheries have shown reluctance to embrace wholeheartedly effective mitigation which has meant that other actions have been necessary.

Watch a video of a new seabird saving device, the Underwater Bait Setter.

International agreements

As well as the existence of seabird bycatch mitigation measures and the research that underpins the efficacy of these measures, international agreements are necessary to achieve global objectives regarding seabird conservation in longline fisheries. Several initiatives exist. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has requested that all fishing nations produce national plans of action to minimise seabird mortality in their longline fisheries. The FAO requests that nations assess the extent of the problem, adopt standard mitigation measures as an interim measure, conduct research into mitigation practices by fishery type, adopt independent observer programs and include seabird conservation provisions in fisheries management legislation.

The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) has been developed in recognition of the fact that albatrosses and petrels traverse the waters of many nations, not only those from their country of origin. The Agreement applies to nations with jurisdiction over breeding populations and to distant water, and other fishing nations whose vessels interact with albatrosses and petrels while fishing. ACAP seeks to achieve and maintain the favourable conservation status of albatrosses.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is a multi-lateral organisation that is responsible for managing fisheries in the Southern Ocean. In 1995 CCAMLR developed a conservation measure especially designed to minimise seabird mortality in toofish longline fisheries which occur principally around sub-Antarctic islands and in waters near continental shelf margins. Further improvements to that measure and additional conservation measures have been made in the years since then. In the past few years CCAMLR-managed fisheries have achieved zero or near-zero levels of seabird bycatch, due primarily to the effectiveness of such measures and other complenentary systems implemented in CCAMLR fisheries.

CCAMLR meets every two years to review trends in seabird bycatch and to discuss advances in mitigation technologies and practices and how best to achieve seabird conservation objectives.

Related links

Watch a video of the award-winning seabird saving device – the Underwater Bait Setter.