Australian Antarctic Division seabird ecologist Dr Graham Robertson has won a prestigious Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship.

Dr Robertson is one of only five recipients internationally to be awarded a Pew Fellowship from the Pew Institute for Ocean Science in conjunction with the University of Miami, USA.

His US$150,000 prize, over three years, will allow Dr Robertson to continue vital research on ways to reduce seabird mortality in longline fisheries. This work is important for seabird conservation and for the efforts of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the newly-ratified Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).

The research will take place in the Patagonian toothfish fishery in southern Chile where the so-called Spanish method of fishing is used widely in the Southern Ocean, and is implicated in the deaths of many thousands of seabirds annually.

Chile is the preferred location because of the prevalence of Spanish system vessels operating in hake and toothfish fisheries, the accessibility of fishing grounds, the history of collaboration with the University of Southern Chile and the Chilean Antarctic Institute, the large size of local black-browed albatross population (around 100,000 pairs), high levels of seabird mortality and knowledge of the ecology of local albatrosses and their interactions with Chilean longline fisheries.

Dr Robertson said that findings from his recent trials on integrated weight (fast sinking) longlines in New Zealand were an important part of this long-term research in ways to eliminate the killing of seabirds in high seas fisheries.

Federal Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Australian Antarctic Division Dr Sharman Stone has congratulated Dr Robertson, saying his name was synonymous with this pioneering research and that his Pew Fellowship was well deserved.

“It is a sad fact that the risks to seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, are increased by longlines that sink too slowly.

“These baited lines take too long to sink and as they float out behind the fishing vessels become a deadly lure to seabirds. Some estimates put mortality rates at several hundred thousand birds annually, so it makes sense to do all we can to avoid these senseless deaths,” Dr Stone said.

“Dr Robertson has been developing methods whereby longlines will sink as soon as they enter the water. However, it is an intricate process involving some trial and error. It’s not just a matter the lines sinking quickly enough to avoid seabird bycatch, but also ensuring that the fish catch is not compromised.”

Dr Robertson’s research on integrated weight lines began in 1997/98 when he conducted seabird deterrent trials with a Falkland Islands company licensed to catch Patagonian toothfish.

“Experiments included attaching external longline weights which produced a much faster sink rate and greatly reduced the death rate of black-browed albatrosses. He then joined forces with a Norwegian longline manufacturer to develop longlines with weight integrated into the fabric of the lines. Trials involving these lines have been conducted since June 2002 in New Zealand, with drastic improvements in seabird survival rates.”

Dr Stone said that Dr Robertson’s method had proved so successful it would be considered for adoption by CCAMLR.

“Dr Robertson’s work to improve longline fishing practices is integral to saving the lives of the huge numbers of seabirds that are now dying unnecessarily.”

Dr Stone said that Dr Robertson was highly respected throughout the scientific world not just for his work to improve the lot of seabirds in longline fishing regions but also for his research into the ecology of emperor penguins.

“Graham Robertson has been long recognised internationally for his seabird research and his inclusion as a Fellow of the prestigious Pew Institute for Ocean Science is confirmation of the great esteem in which he is held,” Dr Stone said.